More cash, fewer requirements: States scramble for teachers

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Angela Pike watches her fourth grade students at Lakewood Elementary School in Cecilia, Kentucky, as they use laptops to participate in an emotional check-in at the start of the school day, Aug. 11, 2022. Nationwide, many school districts face teacher shortages, prompting new retention and hiring efforts by states and localities.
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As students flood back into public schools for fall terms, one important item is missing from some classrooms: teachers. Nationwide, schools are thousands of teachers below their requirements.

It is not a general shortage so much as an intermittent one, say experts. Rural and poorer communities are hardest hit. Special education and other specific types of teachers are in the shortest supply.

Why We Wrote This

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At the heart of the struggle to retain and attract new teachers is restoring a sense of dignity to the profession. Beneath political finger-pointing, that goal is shared by a wide swath of Americans.

States and localities are trying creative ways to attract the educators they need. Des Moines, Iowa, is offering a bonus of $50,000 in retirement funds to veteran teachers. 

Alabama now recognizes out-of-state teacher licenses.

Florida enacted a law that allows veterans to teach with only two years of college.

Florida Rep. John Snyder was that bill’s author. A former U.S. Marine himself, he thinks veterans could be a natural source for future teachers because both are dedicated to public service.

“One of the overarching values in every branch of service is ... being part of something bigger than yourself – and that’s what education is,” Mr. Snyder says. “It’s tough, hard work, and it takes a level of commitment and dedication to see that through.”

Back in his days as a United States Marine, John Snyder studied for a college degree in between battlefield patrols. He retired with two years of college credits under his belt. He has no doubts that he was prepared at that point for another tough assignment: U.S. classroom teacher.

Mr. Snyder ended up going in a somewhat different direction and now works in education-related human relations. In addition, in 2020 he was elected to the Florida state legislature as representative for a district centered on the town of Stuart.

But all the threads of his background have now come together in a bold bid to help solve one of Florida’s big education problems: a teacher shortage dire enough that nearly 9,000 positions remain open in the state as the new school year grinds into gear. He wrote, and the legislature passed, a bill that allows veterans with two years of college but no degree to become licensed teachers.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

At the heart of the struggle to retain and attract new teachers is restoring a sense of dignity to the profession. Beneath political finger-pointing, that goal is shared by a wide swath of Americans.

As the law took effect last week, 233 military veterans applied for an expedited teaching certificate, which allows them five years to finish their bachelor’s degree.

“I’m blown away” by the response, says Mr. Snyder, adding that it confirmed his hunch that veterans could be an untapped resource for understaffed schools.

Florida’s not the only state that needs the help. As the crisper air, pumpkins, and back-to-school days of fall draw near, states across the U.S. sunbelt and beyond are struggling to fill an estimated 300,000 teacher and support staff vacancies nationwide, according to figures from the National Education Association, a teachers union. 

The need has led to a proliferation of creative attempts to staff the classrooms. States are taking steps such as offering veteran teachers five-figure bonuses to postpone retirement, lowering the age for providing instruction, and reducing requirements for specific teaching slots.

The shortage is not so much general as nuanced, with particular geographical areas and types of teachers facing a crunch.

But addressing it has been made harder by the new scrutiny the teaching profession is facing in a polarized America riven by political fights about what should and shouldn’t be taught in public schools. Some experts say that a powerful recruitment tool for teachers might involve dialing back the culture wars and restoring a sense of dignity and respect for the teaching profession.

“America has paradoxical attitudes about teachers,” says Jane Rochmes, associate director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Virginia. “We’re entrusting teachers with our children, so that’s an incredible level of responsibility. At the same time, we have these derisive attitudes like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do it.’ ... We have swung from teachers being heroes to this questioning of things that teachers do.”

Scope of the problem

Nationwide, the depth and breadth of the teacher shortage is not unprecedented, and can partly be attributed to a tight labor market. The crisis isn’t uniform by region, neighborhood, or specialty.

Part of it may be caused by an influx of $190 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds aimed at catching kids up after several years of interrupted schooling. Forty percent of schools plan to expand staffing compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent report by the Rand Corporation.

Experts say the problem is a big supply and demand mismatch in some regions and specialties. Rural and economically marginalized areas are experiencing recruiting and retention problems, especially in the special education and STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – fields.

“At the national level, if you just look at the number of people getting teaching credentials, it still exceeds the number of slots,” says Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research in Arlington, Virginia. “So there’s not actually a number problem when we talk about teachers generically.”

What’s more, the nation saw “shockingly similar” school labor crunches in the 1990s and mid-2000s, Dr. Goldhaber says.

Yet it’s clear that some districts are struggling in new and profound ways to fully staff classrooms. According to the Rand study, three quarters of schools say they expect a teacher shortfall in the 2022-2023 school year, but not a large one. Seventeen percent of districts do anticipate a large shortage. 

Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a crowd before publicly signing House Bill 7, an act designed to restrict what he calls "woke" instruction about race, at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, on April 22, 2022. With the teaching profession ensnared in political frays, Governor DeSantis has moved to boost teacher pay.

Nationally, the number of teachers graduating has dropped from 275,000 in 2010 to 200,000 in 2021, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, even before the pandemic, teachers were leaving their jobs at growing rates. Annual teacher turnover is now at 8%, up from 5.6% in the late 1980s, according to Learning Policy Institute figures.

Americans on the whole support their local schools and teachers, says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett.

But years of focus on student testing and ousting underperforming teachers from classrooms is now combining with an increase in politicization of curricula dealing with gender and race, leaving many teachers unsure of their mission and afraid for their jobs.

“Teacher turnover drives 90% of the teacher shortage,” says Henry Tran, a University of South Carolina associate professor of education. “With all the mandates and barriers, they cannot do what they believe is in the best interest of students.”

State and local incentives

All across the country school districts are hustling to try to fill their empty teaching slots.

Des Moines, Iowa, is offering a bonus of $50,000 in retirement funds to veteran teachers to stay another year. Over 50 educators have taken the district up on its offer.

Illinois earlier this year passed a package of bills aimed at easing its teacher shortage. The legislation, for example, reduced the age of being a substitute paraprofessional educator in grades K-8 from 19 to 18, effective January 2023, allowing students to move to the front of the classroom upon high school graduation.

Alabama now recognizes out-of-state teacher licenses.

And last month Arizona adopted a variation on Mr. Snyder’s idea in Florida by opening up teacher licenses to anyone enrolled in college, rather than requiring a degree in hand.

Florida itself is facing a difficult teacher staffing situation. The state has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the U.S. – but has also been hit hard by inflation, with rents up 30% in some locales. It also has some of the most heated curricula controversies in the nation.

Here in urban Duval County, the school district is short some 400 educators, causing the superintendent last week to warn students and parents that they will have to step up to make sure the school year is successful.

Amid the swaying palms and building thunderstorms Jacksonville, the throes of a national culture war can also be felt.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential contender, has criticized teacher colleges for promoting “woke” activism.

The legislature has passed, and Governor DeSantis has signed, laws limiting the ability of teachers to discuss race and gender. Mr. DeSantis also injected himself into this week’s school board elections, endorsing dozens of candidates to what are supposedly nonpartisan positions.

At the same time, Governor DeSantis has signed teacher raises that have first-year teachers in Stuart, Florida, for example, seeing $48,000 starting salaries, up from $38,000 just a few years ago. Last week, Governor DeSantis vowed to expand Mr. Snyder’s recruitment bill to include retired law enforcement and first responders.

Nevertheless, the number of teachers graduating from Florida teaching institutions has nearly halved in the last five years. The staff shortages have become so acute in rural Lincoln County, for example, that the school superintendent has said he may have to drive a bus route.

“Maybe when you see the governor or other Republicans saying they are worried about the teacher shortage, it’s a bit of alligator tears here in Florida,” says Dr. Jewett, the UCF political scientist.

View from the flea market

High teacher turnover, reliance on substitutes, empty classes where an administrator rushes in to cover a class – all that is detrimental to student learning, says Dr. Rochmes of Christopher Newport University.

“These shortages keep districts from being their best in other ways,” she says.

Just ask Sam and Synthia.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Synthia, Sam, and Siera (from left) are Duval County, Florida, teenagers on a mission to sell puppies at a Jacksonville, Florida, flea market on Aug. 21, 2022. All three say that dramatic teacher shortages have made their school experiences less productive and meaningful, to the point where one of the teens, Synthia, says she dropped out of high school, saying, "There was no point."

The Duval County teenagers are walking through a Jacksonville flea market with a friend on Sunday afternoon, pushing a baby carriage with two mutt puppies they are hoping to sell.

Asked about a teacher shortage, Synthia says, “Ah, that’s been going on for years.”

She says it is what caused her to drop out of high school.

“The kids act up like crazy. They ran the teachers off. There was no point,” she says.

Sam says last year she had an environmental science class where subs sat without lesson plans for three semesters. A teacher was finally hired in the fourth quarter, and the class zoomed through the whole year’s curriculum in only eight weeks.

“We got through, but it was a little close,” says Sam.

A new Florida teacher encountered by the Monitor outside a Target in Yulee had a view of the educational system from the other side of the classroom. 

She had just gotten a job as a teacher, having moved to Nassau County with her husband, who has recently retired from the military. (She asked not to be named out of a concern that any public comments could affect her work, pension, and job prospects.)

New to the state, she has begun to learn evolving rules as to what teachers can and can’t discuss with students with regard to sensitive or controversial topics.

“The protocol is basically to say, ‘I’m here, I support you,’ but not to appear to be guiding anyone,” she says.

Her stress level has been further increased by controversy over the contents of the school library.

“We have to go through our library [to weed out banned books] and, to be honest, I haven’t had time to do that yet,” she says.

Fundamental reforms

There is some evidence that the difficult questions swirling around the roles of America’s teachers are stirring attempts at more fundamental reforms. 

WJCL Television/Courtesy of Savannah Chatham County Public Schools
Cherie Goldman, who teaches English to speakers of other languages, works with students at Hesse K-8 School in Savannah, Georgia, in May 2022. Ms. Goldman led a teacher burnout task force that, among other recommendations, encourages school districts to boost the dignity of classroom teachers by placing them on leadership advisory councils.

Savannah, Georgia, teacher Cherie Goldman just spent a sabbatical year crisscrossing Georgia to talk to teachers for a just-released Teacher Burnout Taskforce report. The report found that pay is a problem, but so is the sheer amount of red tape that steals time from classroom instruction.

Schools and the teachers and students that mill through them are “just so foundational to the intricacies and relationships that bind and build our communities, and our society, for the better,” says Ms. Goldman, an English as a second language teacher who was voted Georgia’s 2022 Teacher of the Year.

The voices of negativity surrounding education are exhausting, Ms. Goldman says. Teachers pour their hearts and souls into their jobs and they found it disheartening when their sheer effort isn’t appreciated.

“There is so much depth to education. It’s so much richer than it has been diminished to be for a catchy headline, a catchy tweet,” she adds. “People have lost sight of the tremendous things that are happening in school buildings every single day on behalf of students, families and communities.”

Mr. Snyder in Florida agrees. His bill to bring veterans into teaching has received some criticism nationally. But he sees it as an effort to recruit teachers who have already proven themselves devoted to public service.

“One of the overarching values in every branch of [military] service is ... being part of something bigger than yourself – and that’s what education is. It’s tough, hard work, and it takes a level of commitment and dedication to see that through.” 

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