R. Bruce Anderson
Public schools have always been a local matter in the United States.
With the great exception of desegregation and its attendant battles, schools have been largely left to the local school district, township, county or borough to oversee, usually with some form of representative legislative panel (a school board associated with the district, county, metro area, etc.) making most of the decisions. In the great American constitutional system, this meant bodies whose members were elected by those they served.
You. The local community. And your kids.
Education has always been highly valued here, and as the people of the U.S. became more educated, the process of education became more professionalized. More standards were set. States began to establish “teacher’s colleges” for people entering the profession – and profession it quickly became. With its own expectations, exam standards on content and style, pedagogy became a closely trained specialist’s job.
In many places, certifications were required for teaching specific things. Under the leadership of theorists like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, whole schools of learning formed around a deeper understanding, and great colleges and universities began to train educators to serve the K-12 crews around the nation.
But our schools are currently in crisis. The issues are many, but a crucial example of the mess is that we may simply not have enough teachers. Districts around the country are reporting 5% to 30% shortfalls in teaching personnel nearly everywhere.
Why? The reasons are as many as the teachers who are leaving the profession, but a few rise to the top.
Teaching has never paid well, and even in wealthy districts, given the nature of local funding options, there was always a ceiling on how much better it could get. As many did during the pandemic, some teachers simply sought better, more lucrative positions in other fields. Others retired.
The pandemic itself was certainly a factor. It was never easy to be a teacher, but as restrictions set in, wavered, varied from school to school, the frustration level of teaching online, partly online, or risking disease in the classroom did not help matters.
Politics, also, invaded the field, and the cluster of issues and pressures has had a palpable effect on teacher recruitment.
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States (for states are in the saddle on most certification issues these days) are increasing flexibility, allowing veterans to teach with little formal training here in Florida, for example. Some states are allowing a decrease in the number of school days in particularly hard-hit districts and allowing teachers to teach without formal certification in particular specialties.
But these guidelines are moves of desperation. School boards will be making the decisions that will attract or repel potential teachers. To attract them, they need to know why they leave. And to do this, they need to listen to them.
The more these bodies are subsumed in low-priority political messaging and the less concerned they are with solving the serious issues, the grimmer the eventual consequences.
There are those who battle for such things, and this year the ballots across the country seem full of them – people with little to no knowledge of the schools, but armed with a crabbed, narrow, political agenda. These are not solutions to teacher recruitment – or the myriad of other issues facing our schools.
Solving the teacher shortage and related issues is, frankly, often beyond their training, understanding or maybe even interest. At this juncture, petty political concerns and distractions cannot be marked at the top of the priority list, sidelining the really important concerns.
Voting for school board is typically down low on the ballot, yet these races are crucial whether you have children in the schools or not. Do your research. Read what they say. As you consider your options, consider this: If the future of the community rests with our children, with whom does the education of our children ultimately rest?
And, don’t forget to vote.
R. Bruce Anderson is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College and Miller Distinguished Professor of Political Science. He is also a columnist for The Ledger and political consultant and on-air commentator for WLKF Radio in Lakeland.