Our local public school leaders are sounding the alarm. They face a critical shortage of qualified teachers, administrators and support staff needed to fill open positions. As The Ellsworth American reported in a recent three-part series, the current teacher shortage crisis is intensified by the convergence of two powerful trends. The first is the demographic trend of more teachers reaching eligible retirement age and moving out of the workforce force than new teachers entering the profession. The second trend is the steady demand across the economy for workers. Maine’s current workforce has reached statistical full employment, which means we do not have enough people in the workforce to fill all the jobs required to support the Maine economy.
Some school districts, many of them in rural areas, do not offer competitive salaries for teacher and administrative positions. As a result, they struggle to recruit teachers to fill open positions and struggle to retain staff who might be tempted by higher salaries elsewhere. There is no good reason to underpay a qualified teacher, unless, of course, you simply can’t afford to pay more. If, for instance, the market in Maine has settled on a salary range for a seventh-grade math teacher, paying substantially below that level is not reasonable for the teacher or the student.
Communities hold dear the New England practice and proud tradition of municipal home rule and local control of government. Maine’s constitution states that “towns are to make suitable provisions, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools.” Elected school board members and school administrators working to help their communities recognize the consequences of the current teacher shortage must make the case to the public so that they ably fulfill the local obligation of providing an adequate education.
We encourage teachers in Maine to welcome and support the participation of new people wishing to enter the profession. Maine’s rigid teacher certification standards, the lack of reciprocal agreements allowing certified teachers from other states to teach in Maine and the regulatory hurdles facing people interested in teaching as a second career amount to a closed shop that fails to address the needs of the students. In an effort to enhance recruitment and retention of school personnel, Maine public schools should abandon the current retirement benefits model and instead have new hires participate in the Social Security system overlaid with a defined benefit/defined contribution pension benefit plan.
Like telemedicine for health care, tele-education can effectively deliver instruction from out-of-district locations to students in underserved districts and could be an economical and educationally valuable part of the solution for our public schools.
Finally, Maine should seriously consider a full-time, year-round academic year with a four-six-week summer break rather than the current 10-11-week break to offset the summer slump that forces teachers to play catch-up with students in the fall.
Implementing these initiatives will help solve the teacher shortage crisis and modernize, energize and professionalize our public schools.