Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Americans shouldn’t be surprised by disruptions caused by teacher shortages and the emerging labor market crisis in K-12 schools since educators are rarely supported in the ways other professions recruit and retain employees.
“Are we supporting them? Are we giving them a competitive salary,” Cardona asked during a speech at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. “That’s the question that we need to ask ourselves today, and it shouldn’t take schools to be closed and the crisis that we’re seeing where we don’t have enough teachers to understand and appreciate what teachers contribute.”
“We shouldn’t be surprised when we’re talking about a teacher shortage,” he said. “We see the ingredients that led up to that. Do we have the will to address that as a nation?”
In a 20-minute long speech, the secretary outlined his vision for revamping the teaching profession top to bottom, starting with increasing salaries for all educators, providing incentives for positions that have been historically difficult to staff, including for special education and bilingual teachers, and revamping teacher education programs to include more mentorships, hands-on experience and concerted efforts to attract more students of color into the profession.
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The speech comes at an inflection point for the country’s public school system – one pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, overwhelmed with learning loss and mental health challenges and overrun with contentious political debates, including, once again, whether to arm teachers in the wake of the most recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
To be sure, the supply-and-demand issue in the educator workforce is not new. For decades, declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs has created persistent and mounting vacancies in schools. And compared to other professions requiring similar levels of education, teaching has experienced relatively flat wage growth, largely at the expense of rising retirement and health care benefits.
But the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated many of the stressors on the K-12 sector, forcing school districts to redirect central office staff to classrooms, ask recently retired teachers to return and put parents on a rotating schedule to provide support in their childrens’ classes. At least two states – New Mexico and Massachusetts – mobilized their National Guards to step in to teach, drive buses and serve meals.
In the wake of a flurry of teacher strikes that centered on low starting salaries, especially for teacher aides, much of Cardona’s speech focused on pay.
“We often pay a lot of attention to starting salaries for teachers, and that’s important,” Cardona said. “But to uplift the profession and attract and retain great teachers, we have to focus on ensuring teachers are paid liveable and competitive wages.”
The average starting salary for public school teachers in the U.S. is $41,163, according to the Learning Policy Institute – though in 32 states the average starting salary is much lower, including in Missouri and Montana, where it’s less than $33,000. And in some states, teachers earn only 67% of what other college educated professionals make.
“We can talk all we want about supporting teachers. We can show up with coffee and donuts in May on teacher appreciation week,” Cardona said. “But we show that we value them by our wallets.”
“In too many states in the United States, teachers qualify for government assistance with their salary,” he continued. “Can you imagine that? Name another profession. Name another profession where it’s been normalized to do more with less on your own personal time, on your own personal dime. Name another profession. We’ve got to stop that, and we’ve got to stop normalizing that.”
In addition, Cardona called on teacher preparation programs, especially those at historically Black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions, to put more resources into recruiting students of color to become educators. He also said high schools should experiment with offering students interested in becoming teachers specialized career tracks, the way some do for various career and technical education.
The secretary conceded the federal government has little sway in the matter, since federal dollars account for at most 10% of school budgets, but implored state and local officials to prioritize the issue and tap into federal resources like funding from the American Rescue Plan where they can.
According to an analysis by Georgetown University’s FutureEd, school districts are allotting roughly 23.5% of the first $50 billion they received through the American Rescue Plan to address staffing issues – just 4.3% of which is dedicated to staff retention and recruitment.
With almost all the federal aid already accounted for – either already spent or allocated for future use – it’s unclear how states and districts that didn’t choose to use funding to address educator pipeline challenges will be able to make any major pivots to do so now.
Notably, the $200 billion included in three separate tranches of federal aid, which states and districts began receiving in March 2020 and will continue to receive through September 2024, amount to just $3,850 per pupil across the 4 1/2 year period, according to Allovue, an education finance organization that helps school districts budget, allocate and manage their funding. That amount represents less than 6% of what most districts spend on students in any year, and because a significant amount of the money went to crisis mitigation early on – things like broadband and Wi-Fi-enabled devices for remote learning and ventilation upgrades and testing required to reopen schools and maintain in-person instruction – much of that money is already spoken for.
But some states have taken it upon themselves to prioritize K-12 spending in state budgets.
California’s 2021-2022 state budget includes $350 million for a teacher residency program to address areas of critical shortages. New Mexico passed legislation earlier this month that provides $15.5 million to support teacher residencies, including a $35,000 minimum stipend for residents, $2,000 for mentors and principals and $50,000 for program coordination at colleges of education.
Thursday’s speech was not the first time Cardona has pushed state and local officials to do better for educators. In March, the secretary called on states, school districts, colleges and universities to prioritize federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to prevent schools from hemorrhaging staff and to attract students and other young workers into the teaching profession to correct an increasingly disruptive supply-and-demand problem.
With the school year coming to an end and school leaders panicked over staffing levels for the upcoming school year, which in some places begins in less than two months, the secretary has been pressing the issue even harder.
“Right now, leaders are struggling to fill vacancies – particularly in the highest need schools and areas – and they’re struggling to increase diversity of our teacher workforce,” Cardona said. “Our schools and students need qualified teachers and our teachers deserve liveable wages.”