Regional superintendents address Illinois' teacher shortage
SPRINGFIELD -- Following a February survey of school districts that illustrated a persistent teacher shortage in the state, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools has released policy recommendations calling for better benefits and more lenient certification in an effort to reverse the trend.
The association, which serves as an intermediary between local school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education, had the survey conducted between September and October to see how school districts were faring with the supply of professional and substitute teachers during the 2020-21 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Illinois was split into seven regions for the purpose of the survey, and school districts reported the shortage was worst in west-central and southeastern Illinois.
White papers developed in response to the survey give seven policy recommendations as ways to combat it from the local to statewide level. The two primary methods discussed in the white paper are improving teacher pay and lessening the restrictions on certifications teachers need to get hired.
When it comes to compensation, it's not as simple as just increasing teachers' salaries, according to association President Mark Klaisner.
"One of the misnomers has been that you can just throw money at salary," Klaisner said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois.
It was just two years ago that Illinois passed a law raising teacher pay, with a mandated minimum of $40,000 by the 2023 school year. Representatives of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools filed witness slips in opposition to the minimum wage increase during committee hearings on the matter in 2019.
While Klaisner said that action was taken in an effort to address the teacher shortage, he believes it actually had the opposite effect in many places, particularly in the rural, less affluent regions of the state.
"Unfortunately, small school districts were reporting to me, that didn't solve a problem it caused a problem, because if I have to pay a minimum of ($40,000), I'm going to let a couple teachers go so I have money to meet the 40 threshold," Klaisner said. "Now my class sizes go up, so education's not better. All I've done is I've moved a problem from one column to the other column."
According to Klaisner, without additional funding, schools in rural areas have to make the difficult choice between offering a lower relative salary -- which makes them less competitive than their metro counterparts -- and cutting some positions to add the difference to core positions to attract applicants.
The National Education Association lists the state's average teacher salary at $68,000, and the average starting salary at $40,484. But in the most rural and underserved areas of the state, particularly in the west central and southeastern regions, open positions offer the state's bare minimum, which is increasing from $32,000 in the current school year to just under $35,000 for the 2021-2022 school year starting in August.
"We know there's certain sectors of the state that's suffering more than others," John Meixner, a regional superintendent who oversees Fulton, Hancock, McDonough and Schuyler counties said in a podcast on education.
"A normal teaching position opens up and an applicant pool up in (Cook County) may have, instead of 150 applicants you might only have 20, whereas instead of having 10 we have zero," he added. "I mean literally we've had positions, dozens of positions where zero applicants apply."
Long-standing problems with the Teachers' Retirement System -- the pension plan for all Illinois public school teachers outside of the Chicago Public Schools district -- have also served as a barrier to attracting applicants to the profession.
The Tier II retirement system available to those hired after 2010 requires teachers work until they are 67 to receive full benefits. It also provides less compensation in retirement as their contribution to the plan also works to pay down the unfunded liability of teachers enrolled in the previous pension plan.
On the salary front, the regional superintendents are recommending school districts lobby the state to approve state-funded loan forgiveness programs for teachers who take jobs in underserved areas, as well as experiment with signing bonuses to attract new applicants.
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools also recommends amending the pension plan to allow teachers to retire at 55 for reduced rates.
Currently, becoming a teacher in Illinois requires a Professional Educator License. To receive one, a prospective teacher requires at least a bachelor's degree, student teaching experience, the completion of a state-approved teaching program and a licensing test.
Licensing tests are split into several grade levels, and teachers certified in one grade level are not considered suitable for hire under a different grade level unless they successfully pass a license exam for that as well.
An educator certified for early childhood can hold a position teaching from birth to grade 2, while an elementary certified educator can teach from grade 1 to 6, and a middle grades educator from grades 5 to 8.
During the pandemic, the state board of education, in conjunction with the Illinois Community College Board and Illinois Board of Higher Education, granted endorsement waivers as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's emergency order to allow schools to fill positions with teachers certified for grade levels or subjects other than the ones they were hired to teach.
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools recommends continuing this practice as a temporary measure as well as auditing whether current licensing restrictions are unnecessary or have exacerbated shortages.
For endorsement areas with a high rate of unfilled positions, such as special education, mathematics and school psychologists, The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools has recommended state board of education look at increasing funding for higher education programs offering certificates in those fields, as well as creating pipelines to transition students from rural school districts to nearby colleges to become teachers in short-staffed positions.
After initially keeping funding for K-12 education flat at about $8.8 billion for the fiscal year in his initial February budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year, Pritzker reversed course earlier this month and announced he was calling for $350 million to be added to the budget for education.
That's in line with the evidence-based school funding model of 2017, which calls for that amount of money to be added to the formula each year.
Education advocates, including bipartisan members of the General Assembly, have strongly praised the evidence-based funding model, which allocates state dollars to districts according to the gap between them and what the state considers to be a required level of adequacy. Each district's adequacy target is determined by a school district's ability to fund proper staffing, student resources and moderate class sizes, among other factors.
Klaisner suggested the state should use that evidence-based formula to distribute federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars, including around $5 billion for education received as part of the American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden. Pritzker, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, has placed parameters on how funding should be spent, and both have strongly discouraged using the stimulus money to pay salaries.
So far, school districts have used the stimulus money they have received in ways as varied as the school districts themselves. According to Klaisner, one school district used what he called "flash in the pan money" -- one time funds that should be used for one-time expenditures and not long-term costs like teacher salary -- to replace its decade-old fleet of buses.
In Collinsville, a city of fewer than 30,000 near St. Louis, the school district used $300,000 in stimulus funds to construct a broadband tower, creating a private network to provide high-speed internet access to underserved students and their families.
While an analysis shows the teacher shortage has actually improved over the last four years, particularly in suburban and urban parts of the state, there continues to be a great disparity in the availability of teachers between rural and metropolitan regions.
A post-survey analysis by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools shows geographic location was the number one factor hurting recruitment, ahead of salary and pension. Over 50 percent of school districts said their geographic location had a negative impact.
In 2019, Cook County and surrounding collar counties had 240 unfilled or underfilled positions, while that number was 228 for the west central region. By 2020, Cook County had reduced that figure to just 91, while the west central region had 257 unfilled positions.
The disparities also exist along racial lines. When controlling for the size of the district, the association's analysis found that the racial makeup of the student body -- even more than location -- was the number one predictor of whether positions in that district would be underfilled or have below-average retention rates for staff.
The higher the proportion of white students a school district had, the fewer underfilled positions.
The analysis also concluded that there was no association between vacancies and the proportion of low-income students, and that racial demographics were also a greater factor than the proportion of English-learning or English-as-a-second-language students.
Klaisner noted that research shows students who belong to an ethnic or racial minority benefit when at least one of their instructors belong to the same racial or ethnic group as them.
"We see all over the state. The demographics are very clear that oftentimes our staffs don't represent the students that they serve, and we feel like that would be a value add, if not essential," he said, pointing to policies like minority teacher grants and state board initiatives to recruit teachers of color.
Despite this, the association's white paper concluded the most important predictors of success when it came to hiring and retaining staff was educator pay and how close the school district was to a teacher preparation program. Stakeholders should focus on addressing these factors, according to the analysis.
"While districts may not be able to change their geography or student demographics, they do have some control over teacher salaries, and institutions of higher education have some role to play in working to serve the state's 'higher education deserts,'" the regional superintendents said in their report.