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Severe Teacher Shortage Shows States Should Better Fund Schools

The country’s severe shortage of qualified public elementary and secondary school teachers, which a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report details, demonstrates states’ need to raise adequate revenue not only to boost teacher pay but also to provide the resources that high-quality schools require.

While teacher protests over the last year helped encourage states to boost teacher pay, some states still have far to go to recover from deep funding cuts they imposed after the last recession. In the first few years after the Great Recession hit, the supply of qualified teachers outpaced demand, but that trend reversed starting in 2013 and worsened over the next five years. By 2018 schools nationwide needed about another 110,000 qualified teachers, according to the best available estimate, from the Learning Policy Institute.

EPI’s study builds on that estimate in two ways:

First, it finds that in addition to the inadequate supply of qualified teachers, many teachers already in the classroom are not very highly qualified. As of 2016, nearly 9 percent of teachers in non-charter public schools nationally were not fully certified, 22 percent had less than five years of experience, and 31 percent lacked educational background in the primary subject they were teaching. These figures all grew between 2012 and 2016 due to a combination of factors including the premature end of emergency federal aid to states and localities in the aftermath of the recession, the enactment of unaffordable tax cuts in some states, and the lingering impact of the recession on state and local budgets.

Second, and even more troubling, is that high-poverty schools are particularly likely to employ teachers who are less qualified under these measures, even though their need for highly qualified teachers is greatest. As of 2016, the share of fully certified teachers was nearly 3 percentage points lower in high-poverty schools than in low-poverty schools, and the share of teachers with more than five years’ experience was nearly 5 percentage points lower, EPI finds. These disparities help reinforce racial inequities since children of color are likelier to attend high-poverty schools, largely because of the lingering effects of historical racism and the damage that contemporary forms of racial discrimination and bias continue to do.

Teacher quality is among the most important determinants of student outcomes, research finds. When children don’t have highly qualified teachers, they often learn less and perform worse in school. When children learn less, they are typically less productive as adults. As such, today’s serious teacher shortages are both hurting kids now and weakening the country’s future prospects.

Schools, especially high-poverty ones, have increasingly struggled in recent years to find qualified applicants for open positions and retain qualified teachers, EPI finds. The number of teachers completing teacher preparation programs has fallen sharply, and teacher turnover is high, leading to large numbers of vacancies and positions that go unfilled. Low pay relative to other professions, inadequate professional development opportunities, and the difficulties of working with children stressed by a life in poverty add to the challenges of attracting and retaining qualified teachers.

Improvements in these areas typically require more funding for schools — to cover the costs of higher pay, more training, a more supportive work environment, and more support for poor families to reduce the stress on children outside of school. Most states have been improving their school funding in recent years, as their revenues have gradually recovered from the Great Recession, but some states still provide much less than they did before the recession, even after the teacher pay raises that resulted in part from protests in some of the deepest-cutting states.