For years, policy advocates and those paying attention have suggested a teacher shortage crisis was imminent. Instead of implementing strategies to attract teachers and keep them in the field, state policymakers have instead foisted more responsibility on already overwhelmed educators. Of course, these new responsibilities didn’t come with significant pay increases. In fact, teachers in Tennessee experience a significant pay gap compared to similarly educated peers in other professions.
Now, the crisis that was warned about has arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the challenge, to be sure. But, the reality is this is a situation that was entirely foreseeable. Rather than solve the problem, though, policymakers have waited until there are actual impacts to students.
Few are suggesting one key solution: Raise teacher pay substantially. Yes, adjusting responsibilities and providing a more welcoming work environment are also important. But, it is long past time to pay teachers significantly more. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus from the recently-concluded fiscal year. We could fully close the teacher wage gap (a raise of about 20% for most teachers) and still have plenty of cash left over without raising taxes one dime.
But, no one who could make this happen is seriously suggesting that.
Instead, we see stories like this one:
Maury County school leaders are trying to find solutions to ongoing staff shortages.
The district has roughly 100 openings right now, along with a need for new substitute teachers and support staff.
Most districts in the state are struggling to find and retain teachers and staff.
Neighboring Williamson County Schools has about 80 teacher openings listed online, along with a hundred support staff positions.
Metro Nashville Public Schools has about 200 openings.
“It’s every district, every state, it’s something that’s been a hot topic for 5 years at least,” Sparks-Newland said.
Yes, this has been a hot topic for 5 years at least. And yet, no solution is on the horizon. Instead, Gov. Lee is suggesting finding a different way to slice the BEP pie. To be clear, this is a school funding formula that is $1.7 billion short of where it should be.
There are ways to improve the teaching profession and make it more attractive that don’t involve pay raises. Those should be addressed and implemented. But, any solution that does not also involve a substantial pay increase will miss the mark and serve to kick the can down the road. The ultimate victims in this delay tactic will be students. When Lee and others tell you they want to put students first, ask them why they aren’t pushing to raise the salaries of the people who teach those students.
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