Keep teachers in the classroom
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Every August, I travel around my 7,000-square-mile congressional district to hear from people from the places in between — the small towns, the hamlets, the vast areas of farmland that serve as the lifeblood of our region and nation. And one surprising topic came up at every single roundtable I held: teacher shortages.

American families all want the same things — the chance to work hard and earn a good living and raise their children with the promise of a good future.

It’s the American dream. But that dream isn’t within reach for all. Families who live in areas with traditionally underserved and underfunded schools face an additional barrier to their children’s success.

For two decades, these schools have faced growing challenges in hiring and retaining highly qualified early childhood and K-12 teachers. This challenge disproportionately impacts schools in low-income regions and in rural areas.

In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute laid bare the consequences of a growing teacher shortage: a lack of qualified teachers, instability in the teacher workforce that threatens students’ ability to learn, diminished effectiveness of teachers on the job and high turnover rates.

Touching on several reports that have been published, the institute explained that the Great Recession resulted in a number of teacher layoffs. In the years since, many school districts were unable to restore student-to-teacher ratios or hire teachers to expand school curriculums or cover projected increases in student populations.

The effect of this problem is profound. In 2019, Illinois faced 4,800 unfilled positions in need of teachers, educators and paraprofessionals. The nationwide shortage was estimated at 112,000 in 2018. The cost of filling a vacancy has been estimated at an average of $21,000 — with a total annual cost of $7.3 billion a year and growing.

Teacher shortages also impact low-income students and high-poverty schools more than those with access to sufficient resources.

That means that many of the schools most severely impacted are those that serve students of color and students in rural or remote areas.

The National Conference on State Legislatures noted, “The more rural the school, the more challenging recruiting and retaining a qualified teacher becomes. Thirty-nine percent of remote schools struggle to fill positions in every subject.”


Getting to the root cause

After that August tour of my district, I held events to hear from teachers, paraprofessionals, college education departments and student teachers to learn more about issues contributing to the teacher shortages we were facing. It was clear that while these individuals had so much love for their job and their students, they — and prospective teachers — were facing huge barriers.

A number of factors contribute to the growing teacher shortage, with low pay and limited access to support and professional development being high among them.

While low teacher pay has long been a problem for many areas, the issue for low-income schools and schools with high poverty levels is systemic — in most areas of the country, levels of teacher pay are largely shaped by local tax revenue.

According to federal data, in 2016 the average teacher salary was $58,950 — though many low-income areas pay significantly less. In 2015, the national median salary of early childhood educators was just $28,570, leaving many teachers to rely on federal food assistance to make ends meet.

And earning a raise presents new challenges for teachers. Many areas require expensive graduate degrees for teachers to obtain a higher level of pay, ultimately adding to student loan debt that would outweigh any accompanying pay raise.

Made worse by poor teaching conditions, teacher salaries have declined over the past 20 years, and teachers in low-income schools earn less than teachers in more affluent schools.

The picture this paints is dismal. Schools in low-income communities, unable to afford to pay teachers competitive rates, struggle to attract, and then retain, experienced, qualified educators.


Facing teacher shortages

This was a growing crisis before COVID-19 hit. The current pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

One teacher who lives and works in the congressional district I serve recently shared some of the issues she and her colleagues face as schools reopen. In her school, an educator is undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer and is faced with either putting their health at risk or not returning for their students.

Educators across the nation are making the same tough personal choices. For many, the risk will be too great; they will not return, and their schools will face another open, difficult-to-fill position.

Whether through low pay or increased risk, we are selling our teachers short, leaving them underpaid and undervalued. But those hurt most are the children.


Introducing the RETAIN Act

In July, with Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOn The Money: GOP digs in on defending Trump tax cuts | Democrats bullish on raising minimum wage | Financial sector braces for Biden's consumer bureau pick Sen. Patrick Leahy returns home after being hospitalized Bush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick MORE (D-Ill.), Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinK Street navigates virtual inauguration week Senate Democrats call on Biden to immediately invoke Defense Production Act Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 MORE (D-Wis.) and Tina SmithTina Flint SmithWhat the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform Hawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Senate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack MORE (D-Minn.), I introduced bicameral legislation to address this severe, nationwide teacher shortage.

The Retaining Educators Takes Added Investment Now (RETAIN) Act creates a fully refundable tax credit for teachers, paraprofessionals and educators to incentivize retention in underserved schools. For the first year of employment, teachers and educators would receive $5,800 in a tax credit. The credit would increase as these professionals become more experienced, with educators earning $11,600 in tax credits in their 10th year.

That means for many teachers, the RETAIN Act would result in a significant increase in take-home pay.

An investment in our educators today will improve the classroom experience for our students tomorrow. Falling short now means paying a larger educational price down the road.

Passing the RETAIN Act must be part of a comprehensive effort to get our children’s education back on track. It’s as important as the American dream.


Bustos represents Illinois’s 17th District and is in her fourth term. She serves on the House Appropriations Committee, House Agriculture Committee and on the Steering and Policy committees.