School staffing shortages put damper on historic infusion of funds

By CSBA President Dr. Susan Heredia

After decades of inadequate funding, it took an unprecedented global pandemic that shut down most schools in California for more than a year to finally receive an infusion of funds that can help us provide the resources for every student to succeed. The state’s local educational agencies are receiving billions of dollars of relief funding from the state and federal governments to aid students in learning acceleration and to provide high-dosage tutoring, extended learning time in before- and after-school programs, social-emotional support and trauma-informed practices — all worthy and necessary goals in order to help students heal and get back on track. There is one major problem, however: LEAs across the state are facing staffing shortages that make this work difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

A March 2021 report from the Learning Policy Institute, California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Teacher Workforce, found that most districts are experiencing teacher shortages, especially for math, science, special education and bilingual education. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, reported a 26-percent increase in the number of teacher retirements in the second half of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. And in the 2020–21 school year, 13,558 of California’s teachers retired, 1,000 more than the previous year.

According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, about 20,000 teachers a year must be credentialed to keep up with demand across the state. In 2020–21, 14,000 teachers received credentials.

Paired with the teacher shortage is a severe dearth of substitute teachers, which complicates the situation further for LEAs that must also quarantine classroom teachers due to COVID-19 exposure. In the 2018–19 school year, the CTC issued about 64,000 substitute teaching permits. In 2020–21, that number fell to 47,000. Staff is so short in some districts, such as San Leandro Unified School District and Nevada Joint Union High School District, that other staff, including superintendents, have stepped in to teach classes. The problem was so bad that in October 2020, Nevada Joint Union HSD had to shut schools down again, and district officials fear it could happen again this year.

The Legislature has instituted one solution — at least temporarily. The Budget Act of 2021 and the education trailer bill extends the maximum length of time a substitute may teach cumulatively in one classroom to 60 days. The extension expires July 1, 2022.

The problem reaches beyond the classroom to bus drivers, cafeteria workers, after-school staff — and it’s nationwide. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly tracking of job openings in public education indicates that more than 460,000 jobs were open in July, compared with less than half that number in July 2020.

In August, Poway USD in San Diego County cut their school bus routes from 130 to 107 due to its shortage of 12 drivers, and other SD County districts are experiencing driver shortages. In the northern part of the state, Elk Grove USD has a total of 150 bus routes but only 100 drivers. Both districts are actively recruiting for positions and using alternate solutions like working with smaller shuttle services for certain students to allow for more route coverage on the bus.

What are LEAs to do?
Examples already abound for LEAs implementing incentive pay and other short-term solutions to these staffing challenges. Districts around the state, including Berkeley USD, Elk Grove USD, Lodi USD, Salinas Union HSD, San Bernardino City USD and more have increased substitute teacher pay. Monterey Peninsula USD has also increased its retiree daily rate for teachers. Long Beach USD is offering signing bonuses for school psychologists and speech therapists, and Pajaro Valley USD is offering signing bonuses for bus drivers.

Districts across the state are holding virtual and in-person job fairs, and even working with their city agencies to secure free or discounted billboard space to advertise school job openings.

But it’s not enough.

Long-term planning and investments at the state-level are needed to help LEAs fill credentialed teacher positions. Districts that use high-retention pathways such as teacher residencies and Grow Your Own programs help prevent shortages by providing fully credentialed teachers that tend to stay in the profession longer, but they cannot do it alone. The Learning Policy Institute report mentioned at the beginning of this message suggests ways that California’s policymakers can aid in this work:

  • The state should institutionalize existing investments in high-retention pathways, such as California’s Teacher Residency Program and Classified School Employees Credentialing Program, that produce well-prepared teachers who stay in the profession at higher retention rates. The teacher residency program is making progress in meeting the needs of California districts for teachers in shortage areas and teachers of color.
  • California can also build the teacher pipeline by providing financial support to teacher candidates who will teach in high-need subjects and locations. Service scholarships like the Golden State Teacher Grant Program can support both teacher recruitment and retention.
  • The state should streamline teacher licensure requirements by allowing candidates to demonstrate their competency through coursework-based options and the rigorous performance assessment already required.
  • Invest in high-quality professional learning to support teachers’ skills for teaching online, as well as implementing trauma-informed practices, supporting students’ social- emotional learning, and managing their own stress.

The issue goes beyond teachers though, and besides raising pay and implementing bonus incentives, districts don’t have many options. Perhaps it is time to recognize these critical staffing shortages at the state level — and provide support in the form of a statewide hiring campaign or recruitment initiative — if we are to keep all students learning in person.