Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.
It’s school board candidate forum season heading toward the November 7 elections. Watching these events, I’ve noticed most candidates, except those with their own political agenda, understand our state is facing a profound teacher shortage.
Recently, I’ve heard candidates say, “We need to attract and retain teachers.” But how can school boards do that? What must happen in Iowa to make it possible?
I’m focusing on the teacher shortage, but the entire education family is affected. Support staff positions like teaching assistants, secretaries, bus drivers, cooks, and custodians, are in short supply. So are school administrators. Schools also need a strong bench, and there’s a real need for substitutes.
Forums are a great way to get a glimpse of a candidate’s views. But the format usually doesn’t allow for drilling down on how candidates would handle the teacher shortage crushing schools across the country.
Obviously, this problem stems from factors larger than any one district, so local school boards can’t solve it alone. But here are some approaches school board candidates should consider if elected.
Listen to teachers.
Educators understand their profession and live the shortages daily. School boards should take their ideas into account.
When I discussed the problem with a veteran teacher, she suggested enacting a law to forgive teachers’ student loans incrementally. If the teacher stays and works in Iowa, a percentage is deducted from the original loan each year. If he or she leaves for another state, the teacher assumes the remainder of the debt. School board members should lobby for this kind of law.
For years I’ve heard, “We can’t just throw money at the problem.” That’s true, but we can target the money to help recruit and retain educators.
In 2021, educators nationally earned 23 percent less than other professions requiring the same level of education. That gap is growing. Salaries need to increase. I’m not talking about one-time bonuses. They are one and done, and only provide a brief incentive, at a higher tax rate.
A loud minority notwithstanding, the American public broadly supports better compensating the teaching profession. A recent National Public Radio poll indicated that only 22 percent of respondents “believe teachers are paid fairly,” while 75 percent say teachers are “asked to do too much work for the pay they receive.”
School board members need to echo and reinforce those beliefs.
Working conditions matter.
Board members need to help dispel the myth that teachers don’t work in the summer. They do.
Research overwhelmingly shows that class size matters. But you don’t need a PhD to understand that if you have 30 first graders in the room instead of 21, it’s more work for the teacher and more work for the student who struggles.
Teachers need time to prepare during the day away from students. Doctors have waiting rooms; teachers don’t.
Most Iowa school districts changed how they negotiated after Republicans overhauled the state’s collective bargaining law in 2017. The district’s first bargaining proposal can now be its final offer. That must change. Bargaining should be problem solving, with educators and the board having an equal voice.
New teachers need support.
Iowa once had a thriving mentoring program, but it died from neglect. We need to help new teachers survive and thrive; mentoring will help.
School administrators need to stop treating educators as dispensable. They aren’t. Once upon a time, a large Iowa school district would get 300 applicants for an elementary position. Now the same district may have three apply. If an educator isn’t measuring up, administrators need to work to ensure growth and improvement.
Unless school boards address recruiting and retaining educators, too many Iowa classrooms may be filled with kids but missing a qualified teacher.
Top image: Screenshot from a video of a recent Iowa City school board candidate forum, organized by the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.