Every August, I travel to my 7,000 square mile congressional district to hear from the people in the places in between – the small towns, hamlets, the vast areas of farmland that are the lifeblood of our region and of our nation. And a surprising topic has come up at every roundtable I have held: teacher shortages.
American families all want the same thing: the chance to work hard, make a good living, and raise their children with the promise of a good future.
It is the American dream. But this dream is not within everyone’s reach. Families who live in areas where schools are traditionally underserved and underfunded face an additional barrier to their children’s success.
For two decades, these schools have faced increasing challenges in recruiting and retaining highly qualified early childhood and kindergarten to grade 12 teachers. This challenge has a disproportionate impact on schools in low-income regions and rural areas.
In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute laid bare the consequences of a growing teacher shortage: lack of qualified teachers, instability of teaching staff that threatens students’ ability to learn, reduced effectiveness of teachers at work and high turnover rates.
Turning to several reports that have been released, the institute explained that the Great Recession resulted in a number of teacher layoffs. In the years that followed, many school districts were unable to restore student-teacher ratios or hire teachers to expand school programs or cover planned increases in student numbers.
The effect of this problem is profound. In 2019, Illinois faced 4,800 vacancies seeking teachers, educators and paraprofessionals. The nationwide shortage was estimated at 112,000 in 2018. The cost to fill a vacant position has been estimated at $ 21,000 on average, with a total annual cost of $ 7.3 billion per year and growing steadily. .
Teacher shortages also have a greater impact on low-income students and very poor schools than on those with access to sufficient resources.
This means that many of the worst affected schools are those serving students of color and students in rural or remote areas.
The National Conference on State Legislatures noted, “The more rural the school, the more difficult it becomes to recruit and retain a qualified teacher. Thirty-nine percent of remote schools have difficulty filling positions in all subjects. “
Reach the root cause
After this August tour of my district, I organized events to hear from teachers, paraprofessionals, college education departments and student teachers to learn more about the issues contributing to teacher shortages. that we were faced with. It was clear that although these people had so much love for their work and their students, they – and future teachers – faced enormous obstacles.
A number of factors contribute to the growing shortage of teachers, with low salaries and limited access to support and professional development being numerous among them.
While low teacher pay has long been a problem in many regions, the problem for low income schools and schools with high poverty rates is systemic – in most parts of the country teacher pay levels are largely determined by local tax revenues.
According to federal data, in 2016 the average salary for teachers was $ 58,950, although many low-income areas pay much less. In 2015, the national median salary for early childhood educators was only $ 28,570, leaving many teachers to rely on federal food assistance to make ends meet.
And earning a raise presents new challenges for teachers. Many fields require expensive graduate degrees in order for teachers to earn a higher level of pay, which ultimately adds to the student loan debt that would outweigh any associated salary increases.
Worsened by poor teaching conditions, teacher salaries have declined over the past 20 years, and teachers in low-income schools earn less than teachers in wealthier schools.
The image that this paints is dismal. Schools in low-income communities, unable to pay teachers at competitive rates, struggle to attract and then retain experienced and qualified educators.
Coping with the teacher shortage
It was a growing crisis before COVID-19 hit. The current pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
A teacher who lives and works in the congressional district that I serve recently shared some of the issues she and her colleagues face when schools reopen. At her school, an educator undergoes chemotherapy to treat cancer and is faced with either putting her health at risk or not coming back for her students.
Educators across the country are making the same tough personal choices. For many, the risk will be too great; they will not come back and their schools will face another difficult vacancy.
Whether due to low pay or increased risk, we are selling our teachers short, leaving them underpaid and undervalued. But those who suffer the most are the children.
Presentation of the RETAIN law
In July, with Sens. Dick durbinDick Durbin Biden to appoint Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan Biden finds few allies on Capitol Hill amid Afghanistan backlash Senior Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home lockdown program MORE (Dill.), Tammy baldwinTammy Suzanne Baldwin Senate Democrats in Garland: “It’s time to end the federal death penalty” Cornyn reaches deal with White House on COVID-19 money for infrastructure White House tries to push back bipartisan amendment on Cornyn PLUS infrastructures (D-Wis.) And Tina smithTina Flint Smith Senate Democrats in Garland: “It’s time to end the federal death penalty” (D-Minn.), I introduced bicameral legislation to address this severe national teacher shortage.
The Retaining Educators Take Added Investment Now (RETAIN) act creates a fully refundable tax credit for teachers, paraprofessionals and educators to encourage retention in underserved schools. For the first year of employment, teachers and educators would receive $ 5,800 in tax credit. The credit would increase as these professionals gain experience, with educators earning $ 11,600 in tax credits in their 10th year.
This means that for many teachers, the RETAIN law would result in a significant increase in take-home pay.
An investment in our educators today will improve the classroom experience for our students of tomorrow. Otherwise, this now means paying a higher educational price on the road.
Passing the RETAIN law must be part of a global effort to get our children’s education back on track. It is as important as the American dream.
Bustos represents Illinois’ 17th district and is in his fourth term. She sits on the House Appropriations Committee, the House Agriculture Committee, and the Steering and Policy Committees.