Tom James, who taught in Washington state for 24 years, shares the new perspective he has on teacher shortages since moving to Hawaii two years ago.
In June 2015, I left the Northshore School District after 24 years of teaching. I consider Northshore to be a fully funded, resource-rich school district with a teaching staff of tremendous talent. The substitute crisis was just starting near the end of my career there, as was the shortage of teachers in key academic areas.
After I moved to Hawaii, I found myself seeing these issues in a much more pronounced and personal way.
I am now in my third year of teaching in Hawaii, which has just one school district. Schools are chronically underfunded, the teacher pay is horrific compared to what I experienced, the substitute crunch is acute and teacher retention is a significant issue. I took a 40 percent pay cut to teach in that state.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As sometimes happens here, schools in Hawaii also hire teachers on emergency certificates. Sometimes classified staff sit in classes because a substitute cannot be found. Money for resources is very hard to come by and professional development is difficult to access.
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All this probably is not surprising, given that Hawaii has the lowest property-tax rate in the country and a service-based economy. We will never get the funding we need because the local school districts do not have the ability to raise money. Recent proposed legislation to increase property taxes for schools failed quickly.
Even though Washington is now much better off than Hawaii, it should continue to push for better results from its schools and better conditions for its teachers. Washington needs to continue the momentum created by the McCleary school-funding decision to build a world-class education system in all its districts.
Here are my recommendations on how to do that:
1. Teacher shortages can be solved by better pay and working conditions. Math, the sciences and special education are the areas most in demand. Our competitors for the math and science graduates are, of course, corporations that offer higher salaries and more opportunities to build the graduates’ talent.
To even the recruitment playing field, pay should be 20 percent higher from the beginning. Washington is moving in this direction, but giving teachers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields a 20 percent stipend still doesn’t allow education to compete with the private sector. A signing bonus should be allowed for people with these majors. Every three to five years, a retention bonus should also be granted.
2. Districts could offer an additional retention bonus to attract teachers to schools with challenging socio-economic situations or with far-flung geographic locations. Hawaii has some financial provisions for both of these situations.
Corporations pay more for people with skills that are in short supply. One could argue the merits of the corporate system, but we should adopt some of its policies to attract talent to our nation’s public schools. Special-education majors, who I think should also be eligible for extra stipends, leave because their jobs are so onerous due to paperwork, extra meetings outside of the regular school day and lack of real support from administrators.
3. Solving the teacher shortages can also start with allowing retired teachers to substitute as much as they want. Hawaii already does this. Washington state should consider it, too. The current chief deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office retired from the Seattle Police Department before being hired by King County. Teachers should be able to do the same.
Compensation isn’t the only reason for the teacher shortage, which also is caused by the divisive nature of our country. Teachers are simply weary of being used as pawns of the politicians. And yet, despite Hawaii’s big challenges, I work every day with teachers who are as dedicated and talented as any I have ever known. I will be 68 at the end of this school year. My hopes for an improved future for teachers everywhere (and their students) are not for me, but for those still in education when I am fully retired.