Lawmakers look to address Louisiana’s teacher shortage

The Louisiana Senate advanced a bill Wednesday to make it easier for retired teachers to come back to work to help ease statewide shortages.

Late. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, the sponsor of the bill, said it addresses the shortage of teachers and other staff. Mathematics, science, English, language arts and special education have all been identified as areas with shortages that require certified teachers.

Current law suspends retirement benefits for many teachers who return to work depending on when they retired. Fields’ bill would expand the number of certified teachers in any subject area who could return without losing retirement pay. That would include anyone who retired before July 1, 2020.

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee advanced a bill Wednesday to maintain a database with training courses and requirements teachers must complete to become certified. The new database would allow new and experienced teachers to keep track of new regulations for professional certifications.

“We have a new social studies standard that came out,” author Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Livingston, “We [need to] re-train our teachers on what that is. ”

Late. Beth Mizell, R-Bogalusa, pointed to a potential conflict in hiring retired teachers over new teachers.

“The only thing worse than not having people getting their teacher degree,” Mizell said, “is people getting their teaching degree and not getting a job.”

Late. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, added an amendment to Fields’ bill. The amendment would require schools to first contact colleges within a 120-mile radius about a job opportunity before giving it to a returning retiree.

“I want to make sure are those individuals who are in college, who are getting an education, that they are getting an opportunity to fill these positions,” Peacock said. “I do not want them to be overlooked.”

However, the number of new teachers coming out of the state’s universities has dropped sharply given that pay for teachers in Louisiana lags the Southern average.

“When I was in college, the largest department at Southern University was the department of education,” Fields said, adding that it is now one of the smallest colleges with just three members of a recent graduating class.

LSU’s School of Education reported that its Geaux Teach STEM department, which was founded to inspire a new generation of science and technology teachers, produced 30 graduates seven years ago but now is producing a dozen at most.

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And it’s not just teachers facing shortages.

For schools seeking staff psychologists, “the situation is dire,” said Amber Harris, state delegate for the National Association of School Psychologists and board member of the Louisiana School Psychological Association, testified.

The national association recommends that schools should employ psychologists at a rate of one for every 500 students in a district. The rate in Louisiana is one psychologist for 3,300 students. Louisiana ranks in the bottom 10 when compared to all 50 states.

“We have a handful of school psychologists who are willing to come back to work if this did not impact their retirement,” Harris said, referring to rules that reduce or suspend retirement benefits for retired school employees who return to work.

According to Harris, Ouachita Parish had 12 school psychologists for the district, now it has three. Morehouse Parish had three. Now it has one.

“We have to do something,” Harris said. “Because this has long-term social ramifications because these kids are not getting educated and not getting their mental health taken care of like they should be within the schools.”

Chris Broadwater, vice president for workforce policy and general counsel of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, spoke about the shortages higher education is facing as well.

“The vast majority of the conversation surrounding these bills has all been focused on the K-12 classroom,” Broadwater said. “But I want you to realize this is not just an issue for the K-12 systems.”

Broadwater said most highly technical instructors in his system are reaching retirement age and are not incentivized to stay in the classroom. Broadwater points to both their low wages and the inadequate benefits of coming back to work after retirement.

“We’re looking for a lifeline in some of these places,” Broadwater said.

Dr. Jim Henderson, University of Louisiana System president, said his schools struggle to find instructors for nursing and healthcare complexes. Finding and retaining these instructors is very difficult, he said, because they must compete with private sector benefits.

“One of our challenges is a lot of retired nurse faculty participating in a defined benefit program that creates an incentive for them to leave teaching simply because they’re losing money every time they come to work,” Henderson said.

Instructor shortages in higher education are not yet included in any bills put forth by legislators, but Broadwater and Henderson hope to add on to existing bills to help alleviate these problems.

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