My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
The public education industry has lately been pushing a story that there is a teacher shortage in the nation and, in particular, Wisconsin. A closer look at the facts paints a more complex picture than that.
The word “shortage” is a relative term. When someone says there is as “shortage” of teachers, what does that mean? Nationally speaking, there are more teachers than at any time in our history except for a brief blip in the last decade. In fact, the U.S. has been on a decades-long teacherhiring binge as the nation has added teachers six times faster than the number of students since 1970, according to the Cato Institute.
This drove the student-teacher ratio from 22.4 in 1970 to 15.6 in 2015. Meanwhile, over the same period, student achievement remained essentially flat. If there is a teacher shortage, it is partially self-inflicted as we have flooded our education system with teachers without the benefit of a corresponding improvement in student outcomes.
The statistics cited most often as evidence of a teacher shortage in Wisconsin are the amount of teacher turnover and the number of open positions. According to the Wisconsin Education Career Access Network, there are about 1,000 open positions across the state as the school year is beginning. That is a few more than are usually open at this time. Considering that this is roughly 1 percent of all of the public education jobs in Wisconsin, that does not seem particularly troubling. Some businesses in manufacturing and technology envy the low vacancy rate of public education.
The turnover rate for teachers is difficult to pin down. Most studies estimate it at about 17 percent nationally with most turnover happening within the first five years of employment. But it fluctuates based on many factors. For example, teacher turnover tends to increase during strong economic cycles because the regimented wage scales negotiated under union contracts were not attractive in a booming economy when other jobs are plentiful. But even at 17 percent, it is hardly in the upper echelon of industries when it comes to employee turnover.
So is there a teacher shortage in Wisconsin? Except for some specific subject areas, no. For example, according to Ted Neitzke, superintendent of the West Bend School District, they receive more than 100 applicants for every normal K-8 teacher position that is posted. This is similar to what other district are experiencing. But when it comes to some specialized subject areas, there are fewer people in the labor pool. According to the Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing from the U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin has a shortage of teachers for things like special education, business, science and math.
What is being misinterpreted as teacher shortage is really the introduction of market dynamics into what used to be a very rigid, closed-labor market. By reducing the relevance of the unions and giving school districts more freedom to manage personnel, teachers are more mobile than ever and school districts are being forced to respond.
Before Act 10, the path for a public school teacher was fairly defined. After graduating from college, they got their first job in a school district. They might change school districts in the first few years as they established a family, but after that teacher turnover was rare. For a teacher to move to another district meant giving up seniority and the pay, benefits and pension that came with it.
After Act 10, teachers have much more freedom to move between districts without being penalized. They can take advantage of jobs in other districts that might pay more, be closer to home, have better advancement opportunities, have better working conditions or whatever reason.
School districts are forced by Act 10 to participate in an active-labor market. No longer can they rely on the fear of losing seniority to keep teachers from leaving. School district administrators can use the power from Act 10 to shed bad teachers and actively recruit better teachers for their district. For the first time, good teachers whose skills are valuable are being called by other districts and offered jobs. School administrators are calling their own good teachers and working with them to keep them on board.
For good teachers, this has been a golden age of opportunity. They can leverage their skills and education to better benefit their families. For bad teachers, it is a time of uncertainty and fear. One thing that is certain is that most public school teachers and administrators have never had to work in a labor environment that is so fluid. Events like a teacher leaving for a better job two weeks before the school year starts did not happen before Act 10. But events like that happen in the rest of the economy every single day.
There is not a general teacher shortage in Wisconsin. Instead, there is a competitive labor market for specialized teaching positions and great teachers that is causing some uncertainty. There are a lot of winners in this new education paradigm. Students and good teachers are benefiting the most.
One final note: If there really were a teacher shortage, one way to alleviate it is to allow educated, skilled professionals to enter the classroom without onerous education and licensing requirements. But the public education establishment fought to keep that out of the budget. Perhaps the rest of us should not take their whining about a teacher shortage crisis seriously until they act like it is actually a crisis.