BY PAUL GULLIXSON on August 16, 2015, 12:07AM 08/16/2015
Clara and I arrived early for her soccer practice Thursday, which allowed us a few minutes to connect. She was reflecting on her seventh-grade orientation from the day before and, although generally pleased with her classes, was waxing dramatic, as only pre-adolescent girls can, about how the first-day-of-school exuberance would soon be gone, replaced by the harsh reality that summer is over.
Yes, mid-August is too soon for such cold trade-offs, I said. “But soon enough you will be in the work world, and as hard as it may be to believe, you will be wishing you were back in school.”
She turned and, with a deep sigh, looked out the windshield. “I can’t wait for retirement,” she said.
Hmmm. Shouldn’t you have to at least pass algebra before you’re allowed to daydream about such things? Truth be told, I share her anxiety about school — but not just for the school year that starts Wednesday. More so for what lies ahead. Since she was young, Clara has been single-minded about her career path. She wants to be a teacher. And, yes, I’m conflicted. There’s no questioning the importance of educators and the profound impact they can have — and have had, in my case — in an individual’s life. It’s hard to think of a more critical or noble profession.
But here’s the problem: Collectively, we say how much we need teachers but then, year after year, we give them every reason to go find another occupation. Which is why so many have. A story in the New York Times last week highlighted the major teacher shortage that’s now facing schools across the nation, particularly in California.
The story by Times education reporter Motoko Rich noted how California, just days from the start of school, is scrambling to fill an estimated 21,500 positions, particularly for math, science and special education teachers. Schools in the Central Valley, including those in Merced and Los Banos, are reportedly offering $5,000 bonuses for educators. And many schools are offering positions to individuals who have yet to complete their credentialing programs.
Esmeralda Sanchez Moseley, the principal at Flowery Elementary School in Sonoma, made such a hire to fill a third-grade teaching position. She told Rich that she was not able to find a fully credentialed applicant. “The applicant pool was next to nothing,” she was quoted. “It’s crazy. Six years ago, this would not have happened, but now that is the landscape we are in.”
Many schools are facing similar situations. Late last week, the Santa Rosa City Schools still had 122 job openings listed on its website for full- and part-time credentialed positions. These include positions for English teachers at Piner High School and Slater Middle School, a fourth-grade teacher at James Monroe, a counselor at Maria Carrillo High School and numerous special education, P.E. and school psychologist positions. The annual salary range for teaching posts was $51,163 to $72,895 depending on experience. Jason Lea, assistant superintendent of human resources for Santa Rosa City Schools, told me on Friday that the district already had filled or was in the process of filling most of the vacancies. But the district still has a number of openings, “mainly in the area of special education,” he said. “The need for special education teachers is most glaring.” The biggest challenge, he said, is that the flow of new teachers coming into the system is not keeping up with the number of those who are retiring.
According to the Times, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in California declined by more than 55 percent from 2008 to 2012. On the national level, the decline is closer to 30 percent. And why not? During the economic doldrums from 2008 to 2012, teachers weren’t getting much love in California. They weren’t getting hired, and those who had jobs were at risk of getting pink slips.
According to state figures, California lost 82,000 teaching positions between those four years. That doesn’t include the tens of thousands of teachers who were laid off in the spring only to be hired back in the summer after school districts had a handle on their budgets. In such an environment, it’s tough to develop much loyalty or career confidence. But the tide has turned. Funding for education in California is up significantly, thanks largely to Proposition 30 tax increases, which have added $6 billion a year to state coffers. K-12 Proposition 98 funding is now close to $10,000 per student.
While still below the national average — New York’s per-pupil funding is $19,818, for example — it’s $656 per student higher than the inflation-adjusted, pre-recession spending levels of eight years ago. In addition, Santa Rosa teachers are entering the school year with a much-deserved pay boost. Under their recently approved contract, teachers, counselors, nurses and others received a 2.5 percent raise retroactive to July 2014, and they will get another 3 percent pay bump for next school year. In addition, the district also will begin offering $2,500 toward medical benefits.
All in all, the environment is right for those wanting to get into teaching. But as the father of a potential teaching candidate — maybe, some day — school districts and the state have to figure out a way to stop acting like Lucy with the football when it comes to luring the next generation of educators. Too often, they end up flat on their backs, contemplating other options in life. And, as is made clear by the current shortage, they get up and explore them.