Steve Comstock, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association, remembers one of the last major crises to face California educators all too well.
As tax revenues plunged statewide and school districts’ coffers dried up during the Great Recession, classrooms were among the hardest-hit areas.
For a while after 2008, pink slips – the term for the annual notices that districts have to give to teachers if they’re not being brought back – became a regular occurrence.
Comstock was not immune.
He received one as a teacher in Lamont, but found another position with the Bakersfield City School District, where he was ultimately elected by his peers to represent them for their union.
However, many teachers lived in uncertainty for years, he said.The effects linger today.
Many left what was considered a very stable job for pastures that were not only more lucrative, but also seemed to offer a more certain future.
Now the state is facing an educational crisis of a different kind.
The problem: There just aren’t enough teachers.
It’s not a new one. The state has been aware of the problem for years. A 2016 study by the Learning Policy Institute: “A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the US, ”pointed to the national scale of the problem.
It noted that slightly more than one-third of teachers do not have their standard credentials. About 14 percent of hires were aged 60 or older while 40 percent of hires were aged 50 or older. And a 2019 report by the Learning Policy Institute then noted: “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing and worse than we thought.”
“There’s very definitely a teacher shortage,” said Vickie Shoenhair, president of the Kern High School District teachers union, who’s been a high school teacher for 53 years.
“We’ve known that this has been coming for 10 years,” she said, “because colleges are not having students enroll in education like they used to enroll in education.”
While both Comstock and Shoenhair acknowledged that local districts are doing everything they can to address the problem – including increases in wages for substitutes, partnerships with colleges and universities and proactive searches, even outside state lines, for new recruits – they also noted that COVID and other challenges have made the field somewhat less appealing, which is not necessarily the fault of local school districts, but a problem most are dealing with to varying degrees.
The state’s largest high school district, Kern High, put out its list of vacancies, which had about 250 openings, in mid-March. Will Sandoval, assistant superintendent of human resources for Kern High, felt that was “a pretty decent number,” considering the district had 19 comprehensive high school sites for about 40,000 students. He also noted a number of those openings were for a new campus, Del Oro High.
“We rely heavily on our local universities in their teacher preparation programs,” he said, mentioning Cal State Bakersfield, Point Loma Nazarene, Fresno Pacific and University of La Verne as partnerships that have been helpful in the past. He also mentioned a residency program the district runs with CSUB, which allows the students to work on their credential collaboratively with Kern High teachers and the CSUB program.
Sandoval mentioned that there are a number of factors that are involved in the statewide teacher shortage, and one of the biggest uncertainties remains how COVID will continue to shape the classroom experience for everyone involved.
Teachers, and other professionals, are also leaving California for a number of reasons.
“One thing we’re dealing with right now, and that we do not know how it’s going to end up, or what the outcome is going to be,” he added, “is that COVID has changed education.”
And Kern High’s numbers line up with those seen around the state. A January report by the Learning Policy Institute found that a number of the state’s largest districts had 10 percent of vacancies still unfilled at the start of the new school year.
From bad to worse
While COVID has exacerbated the problem, the situation was bad well before the global health crisis.
School districts had a tough time hiring teachers as they began recovering from the Great Recession and reinstating positions that had been cut, according to the 2016 Learning Policy Institute study. Science, math, bilingual and special education teachers were in particularly high demand and the study projected that statewide, districts would need to hire about 300,000 teachers a year starting in 2018.
Comstock said evidence of this challenge locally can be seen in the hundreds of teachers on BCSD’s role that do not have permanent status yet because they’m still working on their credentials.
“Prior to the pandemic, big drivers of shortages were significant decline in preparation, increased demand and teacher turnover,” said Tara Kini, director of state policy at the Learning Policy Institute. “In California, that accounts for 90 percent of the demand.”
While student enrollment also dropped at a faster pace during the pandemic than during previous years, teacher retirements and turnover were even bigger factors at some districts.
The California Department of Education does not track statewide teacher turnover, but data from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System shows that retirements increased by 26 percent in the first year of the pandemic. According to a survey, 56 percent of retirees left due to the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.
California Teachers Association president E. Toby Boyd in a statement to Calmatters said teachers are “exhausted and burned out and are planning to leave the profession earlier than expected.
“If California is truly serious about providing every child with the education they deserve, addressing our teacher shortage should be the top priority of every district and our elected leaders right now,” he said.
Both Comstock and Schoenhair noted that teachers want to be in the classroom, because that’s where they see the most success with students, but there are new risks to that, while also noting virtual instruction has pushed many educators out of the profession for good.
“It’s bad, and it’s going to get worse,” said Matt Best, superintendent of Davis Joint Unified School District. “The trend has been in place for a better part of a decade. We have to fix some of these barriers. ”
One of those barriers is the cost of becoming a teacher. After earning a bachelor’s degree, prospective educators need to spend an additional one or two years in school earning a credential and spending time as unpaid student teachers.
To help ease that burden, California has budgeted nearly $ 170 million since 2017 to help current public school employees who aren’t teachers earn teaching credentials. They can get up to $ 25,000 to help cover tuition, books and testing costs. The grants have so far produced 511 teachers and could generate up to 7,620 in the coming years.
And since 2015, California has invested $ 4.8 billion in teacher recruitment, retention and training efforts, all designed to alleviate a chronic staff shortage that devolved into a crisis during the pandemic. That amount of money would pay one year’s salary for over 56,000 teachers earning the average salary for public school teachers in 2019-20. Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $ 560 million more in next year’s budget.
While school districts consider these short-term grants a blessing, administrators say more permanent increases to education funding are necessary to help them pay the ongoing costs of teacher salaries and benefits. Teacher salaries can range from around $ 50,000 to about $ 100,000.
Another promising program, Kini of the Learning Policy Institute said, is the Golden State Teacher program, which would give college students up to $ 20,000 for committing to working at schools with the worst teacher shortages.
While districts will likely continue feeling the pain as they wait for these grant programs to bear fruit, Kini said she’s optimistic about the long term. The data, she said, shows a correlation between the state grants and an uptick in teacher preparation.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” she said.
Perry Smith of The Californian and Joe Hong of CalMatters contributed to this report.