Sign reads "Invest in Public Education"

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union gathered at a rally ahead of an upcoming potential educators strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago. With Chicago teachers demanding increased school funding, pay raises, and more healthcare benefits, the rally featured an appearance from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who praised teachers' work and called for dramatically increased support for public schools nationwide.

(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

To Address Teacher Shortage Pay Teachers More

And give all educators and their students the resources they need to be successful in the classroom.

Though states are seeking to reduce the teacher shortage, the problem only seems to be getting worse. Recently, the National Education Association reported that 55 percent of teachers are planning to leave the profession earlier than they planned. This means that, if current trends persist, the gap between the number of working teachers and the number of open positions will widen significantly by 2030. This is where Bernie Sanders, the new Senate Chair of Health, Education, and Labor, comes in.

In late February, Sanders proposed the “Pay Teachers Act,” which would increase the base salary for teachers across the country to $60,000. “In America today,” the senator wrote in a mailer, “the starting pay for teachers in almost 40% of our school districts is less than $40,000 a year. Further, 43% of all teachers in America make less than $60,000 a year.” While some critics of the proposal say that wage increases in education should be handled solely at the state and local level, federal action would provide an immediate response to an entire system in crisis, rather than a slow, patchwork response. Legislation that would improve the starting wages for many teachers, especially early career educators, is much needed and a welcome step to stabilize the educator workforce.

Privatization initiatives—such as voucher and charter expansions, along with legislative efforts meant to intimidate teachers—have made teaching in public schools more difficult.

For the first years of my own teaching career, I made below $40,000. Back then, like many other educators, I had to balance the costs of everyday life with the steep learning curve of a new career. For many educators, the financial, emotional, and professional stressors of the first five years simply become too much. The result has been a staggeringly high percentage of teachers leaving the profession before making it to the half-decade mark. The pandemic and anti-public school political campaigns have undoubtedly made this trend worse.

Pressure from the privatization movement also adds to the crisis by accelerating the departure of public school teachers from the profession. This churn is in line with the movement’s goals, which are to disrupt and destabilize the public education sector, regardless of the human cost. Privatization initiatives—such as voucher and charter expansions, along with legislative efforts meant to intimidate teachers, like proposing jail time for teachers who have the audacity to have books that show the diversity of humanity—have made teaching in public schools more difficult. Undoubtedly, these shifts have contributed to potential teachers deciding on other careers where they will not be demonized for providing a public good.

College students who might be aspiring teachers have taken note of the hostile conditions of the profession as well. Education departments in colleges and universities nationwide have seen student enrollment in their programs drastically dip since the pandemic began. Survey results have found that parents are less likely today to encourage their children to pursue a career in education. This is a problem for schools, both in the near and long term.

With the challenges facing public education, the Pay Teachers Act is a step in the right direction for the nation. But before we can pay teachers, we must make sure that there are teachers who will be ready to enter the classrooms of tomorrow (and today). Increasing the total number of students enrolled in university programs and internships leading to certification must be a focus going forward. And no, we cannot accept lower standards for teacher preparation programs or the use of National Guard members to keep schools open. We can do better—we owe it to our students to do better.

Improving teacher recruitment and retention requires easing barriers for aspiring teachers. It is not uncommon for aspiring educators to take on debt for college classes, which include part-time or full-time internships training side by side with an experienced educator. While internship experiences are an excellent way for new teachers to learn, paying for the training experience on top of transportation, food, rent, and other living expenses is an economic burden. It’s critical that those entering the profession not be saddled with debt that may make a career in teaching out of reach.

Paid internships and residencies can place needed money in the pockets of aspiring teachers and reduce financial friction on the pathway to being a certified educator. Along these lines, legislative action at the state level may aid aspiring teachers with paid internships. Existing loan forgiveness programs may supplement these new measures. Those who want to contribute to the betterment and development of the next generation should not have to be buried by debt.

Reversing the declining ranks of public school teachers will take a concerted effort by federal and state agencies, local school districts, and universities. But most importantly, it will take current and aspiring educators, because without their passion, dedication, and willingness to do the tough heartfelt work communities across the country need at this moment, no amount of policy will make a difference. Let’s do all that we can to encourage and support teachers in this time, including getting behind Sanders’s Pay Teachers Act.

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