K-12 leaders are warning Congress of a ‘national crisis’ of teacher shortages

Per-pupil student investments have significantly outpaced teacher salary growth, one expert says.

Teacher shortages have been exacerbated over the past two years, according to several panelists speaking during a recent House Appropriations Committee Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee hearing, Tackling the Teacher Shortage.

During the hearing, legislators and witnesses acknowledged the pall cast by the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, and said safety of educators and students in schools is a concern that plays a part in educator recruiting and retention. While the debate continues over safety measures for schools, they said, several other factors related to teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation need to be addressed.

The pandemic “imposed new burdens on schools and our teachers,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “There has been a significant increase in retirement and a dramatically shrinking pipeline into the profession.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten agreed, calling staffing shortages not just a school problem but a “national crisis.” She said the teacher turnover rate is nearly double that of their peers in other occupations, and suggested policymakers consider “what would make you recommend a career in teaching to your child or grandchild.”

Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, cited a need to continue to recruit and retain teachers of color as minority students are overwhelmingly taught by educators who are white and female. She said high turnover rates have offset the “successful recruitment of teachers of color,” and while federal recovery funds can be used, sustained federal investments are needed. She said Congress can support diversity in the education workforce through the annual appropriations process.

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Jane West, an education policy consultant, added there is a critical shortage of special educators in the nation, and the pipeline for future special educators is threatened by a decline in enrollment in special educator preparation programs and a high attrition rate. She said the field is confronting the shortages at the same time that the number of students needing special education services has increased. The ongoing shortage is leading to burnout among special educators already in the field, she said, exacerbating the issue.

They made the following suggestions to address the teacher shortage.

  • Improve teacher recruiting and retention policies. Underwriting the cost of teacher prep can boost the share of minority teachers, Carver-Thomas said. She urged an update to the federal service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs so diverse candidates can afford high-retention pathways into teaching.
  • Give educators the time, tools, and trust necessary to succeed. Weigarten said this includes policies such as reduced class sizes, individualized attention, increased planning time, and enabling educators to create teams to share the workload. Carver-Thomas said mentoring and induction supports for new teachers would also be beneficial.
  • Find ways to improve compensation. Weingarten said public loan forgiveness programs could help reduce teacher debt.

Redistributing resources

Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation said that while the teacher turnover rate has increased significantly over recent years, there is no shortage of school staff. She suggested that the increase in the number of non-instructional staff over the past few decades has come at the expense of instructional staff and represents an “opportunity cost” as per-pupil student investments have significantly outpaced teacher salary growth.

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She suggested policymakers enact the following changes to improve the number of available teachers.

  • Remove barriers to entry in the classroom. Burke said there is very little relationship between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness, and suggested that rather than requiring rigorous certification procedures, policymakers and administrators could make it easier to enter the profession, but conduct more rigorous evaluations to ensure effectiveness.
  • States should move from defined pension plans to defined contribution plans like 401(k). Burke said this will provide retirement plan portability as well as the accumulation of equal benefits for teachers.
  • Eliminate last in, first out policies. Burke said layoffs in districts should be based on teacher effectiveness and competence, not the number of years in a school building.
  • Stop the “non-teaching school staff hiring spree.” Burke said public school districts already have the tools and resources available to attract teachers, but that it requires making different choices.

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications. 

Charles Hendrix
Charles Hendrix
Charles Hendrix has been writing about federal K-12 education policy, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2006, and has in-depth knowledge of Capitol Hill and the federal legislative process. He is a senior editor with LRP Publications and the author of What Do I Do When® The Answer Book on Title I – Fourth Edition. He lives in South Florida with his son and their trusted chiweenie, Junior.

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