Public education is a war zone right now, but the dire teacher and education staffing shortages faced by states across the country long predate the fights over masking, history lessons, and even the pandemic.

Back in 2016, the Learning Policy Institute predicted a “coming crisis in teaching” due to a dwindling pipeline of new teachers, increasing student enrollment, and high levels of teacher attrition. The combination of low pay, high stress, a lack of support, and a widespread culture of test-based accountability drove many experienced and prospective teachers away from the field.

The #RedForEd teacher strikes in states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia briefly brought attention to these issues, and forced Republican legislatures to provide some long-overdue pay and funding bumps that proved to be scotch tape on dam walls that were about to burst.

As with all aspects of our society, the Covid pandemic has pushed the education system to the brink. Compounding concerns over health and safety, those longstanding pay gaps and inequities, and the politicization of public health guidance superchargedteacher burnout. Michigan, for example, experienced a 44 percent increase in midyear teacher retirements between 2020 and 2021.

After a year and a half of pandemic-boosted attrition, more than three-quarters of school districts and principals nationwide had moderate to severe staffing shortages at the beginning of the school year. To address the need, some states, including Nevada, Oregon, and Missouri, allowed almost anyone with a high school diploma to get an emergency substitute teacher license. Many states have allowed retired teachers to come back for a few years without giving up their pensions.

The recent omicron-fueled surge has kicked the system over the edge. In Michigan, teacher satisfaction dramatically dropped from the August 2021 height of the delta wave to January 2022. Teacher absences increased 40 to 50 percent from December to January. Unable to meet staffing needs, Detroit public schools went virtual every Friday in December. Even more have been forced to combine classes or otherwise stretch resources as a result of the volatile staffing situation.

The most recent shock has forced states to take drastic measures. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Sitt signed an executive order that allows state employees—including uniformed police officers—to serve in the classroom.

Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina introduced a policy that lets state employees use paid leave to serve as substitute staff in schools and keep the compensation they earn. ‘

In New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham got certified as a substitute teacher and called on the National Guard to step in; at least 78 members reported to the classroom by early February.

And it’s not just public sector workers who are being called to duty. Salt Lake City’s Chamber of Commerce is asking businesses to let their staff “play hooky” as substitutes. The Girl Scouts of Central Indiana are encouraging their volunteers to get certified and releasing staff members to serve as substitute teachers. School districts are asking parents and even college students to fill in.  

While these emergency measures may help meet the immediate crisis, they do little to address the long-term trends. And without the passage of Build Back Better’s education initiatives, it is up to state and local governments to make investments in our educators and students.

Fortunately, some forward-looking policymakers are leveraging federal and state funds to help encourage more people to become teachers and retain those who are already educators.

Districts in Iowa City are using federal funds to hire more English and math teachers to reduce class sizes and bring on learning specialists to help with learning loss associated with the pandemic. Tennessee has established a teacher apprenticeship program that provides free teacher training and paid residency experience—an approach that produces effective educators who both remain teachers longer and are more racially diverse than teachers who are trained in other contexts.

With teacher pay so low that nearly one-third of new educators take second jobs, increasing compensation is a critical piece of the puzzle. Recognizing this, the Los Angeles Unified School District gave all teachers a 5 percent raise as well as a retention bonus. And yesterday the New Mexico House voted unanimously to increase teacher salaries by an average of 20 percent and institute a $50,000 salary floor.

Other states are following suit, some with more expansive policies than others. Many Republican-led states are proposing small raises, including Georgia and Virginia, but those places also are enacting policies that make teachers’ lives hell in other ways.

In Virginia, new Gov. Glenn Youngkin infamously pursued a ban on mask mandates and instituted a ban on “divisive concepts” that included a racist parent snitch hotline that terrified teachers until it was spammed by defiant progressives.
The mask mandate ban got stopped by the courts, but yesterday, enough Democrats jumped ship to give legislation that did the same thing — plus strip school districts of the ability to go remote in most circumstances — the votes to pass.
In Florida, Ron DeSantis is doubling down on his ban on “divisive” concepts, pushing hard for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would essentially forbid the discussion of gender or sexual orientation in the classroom. Students and families are protesting hard against the bill, which could chase many teachers out of the classroom and endanger kids across the state.

P.S. This is adapted from a news piece written by a paid contributor to my newsletter called Progressives Everywhere. The newsletter focuses in depth on progressive politics and policy, including lots of coverage of state governments you won’t get elsewhere, and holds bad Republicans accountable — in fact, tonight we’ve got a big issue about the antivax doctor in Kansas who has been key to a gerrymander that could win the GOP a majority in Congress. 

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