State of the Union

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, during which he called for pay raises for public school teachers. AP Photo Jacquelyn Martin, Pool

The superintendent of Otto-Eldred School District, set in a sparsely populated region of Pennsylvania along the New York border, is on his third attempt to find a long-term solution for a music teaching vacancy.

Matthew Splain said the part-time position is currently filled by a college student pursuing a teaching certificate. The job is expected to open again, and Splain thinks it unlikely to find another part-time worker for the role.

“You’re looking at applicants you wouldn’t look at five (or) 10 years ago,” said Splain, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

In that, Splain is not alone.

There are no definitive, real-time data reflecting the count of teacher vacancies – not from the federal government, and not from most state education departments.

Even so, schools report they are struggling to hire teachers, especially those in specialized roles such as computer science and special education, as well as substitutes. Monthly job data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows openings in public education outnumber new hires at a rate of nearly 2 to 1.

Over the past two months, reporters from CNHI Newsrooms nationwide have sought to clarify this issue and identify the issues that may be driving it for this special report, “Leaving the Classroom.”

The Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that at least half of all public schools had three teacher vacancies, on average, ahead of the current school year. The top two reasons cited in the struggle to hire teachers were too few candidates (69%) and a lack of qualified candidates (64%) applying for work, an IES survey of school leaders shows.

With fewer candidates, some schools find themselves in a position of poaching.

Terence P. Meehan, superintendent of both the Neshannock Township and Wilmington Area school districts in northwest Pennsylvania, said his districts count among those where teaching candidates ideally would like to work.

“We’re getting teachers from other districts and we’re kicking the can down the road, and it leaves a shortage elsewhere,” Meehan said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Struggles across states

Statistics suggest the issue is felt across states.

Recent job searches specific to teachers and support staff show Georgia has more than 1,200 openings, Pennsylvania has nearly 1,000, Indiana about 1,500 and Alabama more than 885. Data from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association showed that the state had more than 1,000 vacancies at the start of the current school year.

Pennsylvania has more long-term substitutes working on emergency permits than newly certified teachers. Classroom vacancies in North Carolina jumped by more than 50% this school year.

A recent survey found nearly 95% of Indiana school superintendents who responded are contending with a shortage of qualified candidates for teacher openings.

The latest Texas Teacher Poll found that 77% of teachers who responded have seriously considered leaving the profession, compared to 58% in 2020. Among those who have seriously considered leaving, a majority – 93% – took steps to leave the profession within the past year.

In Boston Public Schools, more than 800 teaching and other staff positions were vacant at the beginning of the school year.

“It’s a major challenge, and almost every school that I talk with has staffing problems,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “They can’t find substitute teachers or psychologists; they can’t find paraprofessionals or support staff.”

Jeffrey Papcun teaches math and computer science in the Westmont Hilltop School District in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, suburbs. Finding substitute teachers is a particular difficulty, he said.

“Our main cohort of substitutes are retired teachers, which is crazy,” Papcun said. “Years ago, the substitutes were all young people in their first year of college trying to get their feet in the door. Now, those people don’t exist.”

Not enough data?

Some researchers and education professionals, like Ed Fuller, have pushed against the narrative that there’s a national teacher shortage, though they don’t dispute there are hiring challenges. He and others believe the shortages are regional, local even, and aren’t exactly new phenomena.

“There are enough teachers; there just aren’t enough who choose to work in the current situation,” said Fuller, an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education at Penn State.

A robust study of data available, old and new, led researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to estimate that there are 36,500 teacher vacancies nationwide as well as 163,650 positions filled by underqualified instructors.

Among the main takeaways by these researchers was the need for quality, accessible data to inform policy decisions and address shortages where they exist.

The federal government is taking note.

Roberto Rodriguez is the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. Issues of teacher shortages span the country, he said, as does one resource to help: American Rescue Plan Act funding.

According to Rodriguez, approximately $26 billion was budgeted for hiring and retention. Addressing hiring challenges is a core priority of the department, he said.

President Joe Biden called on America to give its teachers a pay raise in his State of the Union address. Rodriguez echoed that sentiment.

“We need to really have a national reckoning with the challenge of under-compensation that our teachers are facing,” he said.

CNHI reporters Janelle Stecklein, Christian M. Wade, Carson Gerber, Asia Ashley, Ali Linan, Debbie Wachter and Josh Byers contributed to this report.

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