Tipping point: Could public education be a month away from collapse?

By now you know at least something about the growing teacher shortage crisis. It’s already bad and it’s getting worse. So how bad is it? How close are we, really, to a complete and catastrophic collapse of public education? If you follow my writing, you know that I have been strongly suggesting that we are on the brink of such a situation. Perhaps you write me off as some sort of battle-weary kook but I’m here today to share with you some pretty sobering numbers from recent polling data that would suggest that I might not be as kooky as I appear. If the chips fall the wrong way, we could be within months of a public education disaster. 

The latest data available on where teachers are right now with regard to what they plan to do next comes from polls conducted by an organization called K12 Leaders and it is as close to real time data as you will find, having been collected within the last couple weeks. As I hinted above, the latest data paints a very ominous picture of the immediate future of public education. 

Of all the education professionals surveyed, two out of every three described themselves as dissatisfied with their current working conditions. That is a staggering number. While I haven’t conducted any scientific survey of my own, I can vouch for the fact that, among the many educators whom I know, I’d have to say that number is pretty spot on. 

Having 67% of professionals in a huge and vitally important field dissatisfied is enough for concern, but it gets even scarier. Of those 67% of dissatisfied educators, 88% responded that they are prepared to leave their jobs with less than one month’s notice. Now, let’s do a little basic math with those numbers. In my state, Indiana, there are somewhere between 65,000 and 75,000 teachers. For math purposes, let’s just split the difference and call it an even 70,000. That would mean that there are about 47,000 dissatisfied teachers, leaving only 23,000 or so satisfied ones. Since 88% of those dissatisfied teachers are prepared to leave with a month or less of notice, that could amount to over 41,000 teachers gone in a very short time—41,000, by my math, is well over half of all the teachers in this state. Now extrapolate that math over the other 49 states. Are you beginning to get a sense of how urgent this problem is?

You may be wondering exactly why teachers are so dissatisfied. The K12 Leaders survey identified several “risk factors” for teacher dissatisfaction and I will share and comment on the top three. 

  • Lack of Respect

Over the last couple decades, teachers have developed a bit of a Rodney Dangerfield complex—I tell ya, we don’t get no respect—for many reasons. The far-right wing of the GOP began its attack on public education by demonizing it as an amoral indoctrination machine by spreading myths and outright lies to work up their fundamentalist evangelical support base. The absurdist story got out that the societal fabric began to unravel because we “locked God out of schools.” 

(For a much more detailed look at my thoughts on this, read more here and here.) This ridiculous lie, as all big lies tend to do, spread like wildfire. This paved the way for far-right lawmakers to attack public schools by setting up a teacher accountability and school funding system so inequitable that it is almost impossible to believe. Let me lay out how this went down in Indiana over the last two decades with this excerpt from a previous piece I wrote about Mike Pence seven years ago. Sadly, things have only gotten much worse since then.

This all goes back to a previous Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels. His education plan was hostile to public education. It was very transparent, to all who would see, that Daniels was no friend to public education. He implemented a plan that, by its nature, pits high income schools against low-income schools and judges them based on an A to F grading scale. These grades are given on the basis of scores on a highly specious standardized test, which requires all students to “clear the same bar” regardless of their starting point. This has resulted in a predictable gap in achievement where the affluent school districts tend to “out-perform” the high poverty districts. As a result of the Daniels program, the lower performing districts get less funding than the higher performing districts. This, coupled with the voucher system, which allows people to take advantage of government assistance to move their students from one district to another, or to a state sponsored “charter school”, results in widening the gap between the haves and the have nots even further than before. The voucher system sounds great to many people (perhaps to you, too), but in reality, it only exacerbates the achievement gap. For the most part, only those families who can afford transportation to other schools take advantage of it. This creates a situation where some of the better students in “under-performing” districts move out to other districts or to charter schools. Of course, this often results in lower test scores in the schools those students vacated. That means no pay raises for teachers in those schools. That eventually leads to teachers leaving the profession, which leads to teacher shortages. We are beginning to deal with this problem now, big time! We need the best and brightest teachers to be attracted to the students who need them most, not driven away. Another problem with vouchers that most outside education don’t understand is that, sometimes, you can’t just pick and choose any school to which you want to send your child. School districts can, and do, close enrollment. Don’t think for a moment that this is done equitably. I will just say this…if the most affluent school districts in the state (you know who I am talking about) suddenly were overrun with voucher applicants from Indianapolis Public Schools (or numerous other urban districts around the state) who have had a history of low academic achievement or high-risk behaviors, you can bet that the voucher system would go away quickly!

In 2012, the same year Mike Pence was elected as Governor, many thousands of Indiana educators began a grass roots campaign to remove Governor Daniels’ buddy, the Superintendent of Public Education, Tony Bennett, from office. Incredibly, the effort was successful and a previously unknown educator and librarian, named Glenda Ritz, was elected as the new Superintendent of Public Education. The ousted Bennett went on to be named to a similar position under Governor Jeb Bush in Florida. While in that position, it was learned that Bennett, while in his previous position in Indiana, with Daniels support, had been guilty of corruption when he illegally helped one of his pet charter schools, Chrystal House, by rigging the grade  for the school when it did not perform as well as he would have liked.

Now back to Pence…

Mike Pence entered the office vacated by Daniels on the heels of the shocking victory achieved by Glenda Ritz. He had an opportunity to step back and assess the clear message from the voters that we were not happy with the direction public education had taken. Instead of honoring the will of the voters of Indiana who, by the way, amazingly, gave Ritz more votes as a Superintendent of Public Education (normally an office that is an afterthought and doesn’t garner a lot of voters’ attention) than Pence got in his victory as state governor, Pence immediately began to look for ways to undermine the power of Ritz’s office. Pence, a champion of “small government”, formed an entirely new state board of education!  That’s right, he created a second board of education, thumbing his nose at the will of the electorate and effectively stripping Glenda Ritz of much of her power. He then went on to further attempt to abuse the democratic spirit by trying to start a state controlled media outlet!  That’s right, Mike Pence not only created a new government agency to try to circumvent the will of the electorate, but also tried to control the story by creating a state-run news agency. Is it any wonder teachers feel disrespected?

  • Compensation

Teacher compensation, overall, is far too low for a professional career that requires a bachelor’s degree at minimum, and continuing education for relicensing. That’s a claim easily backed up by comparing similar careers with similar requirements. But it isn’t that simple. Because of all the ridiculous “accountability” measures explained in detail above, a tremendous pay gap has been created within the teaching profession. Grizzled veterans like me were able to climb up the pay scale a good deal before teacher pay and school funding became tied to standardized test scores. Today, in a school like mine, I might make as much as $30,000 to $40,000 more per year than a young teacher who may never have a chance to catch up to where I am on the pay scale. You can read a more complete version of my thoughts on this matter here.

  • Schedule/Flexibility

Ok, don’t jump to conclusions on this one before you hear me out. I understand that some might see that header and say, why would teachers be dissatisfied with their schedules? Granted, one perk of our profession is that we do have quite a bit of vacation time. But believe me, if we didn’t have that, nobody would teach. This isn’t about that. Schedule and flexibility issues are on the rise as a direct result of the teacher (and substitute teacher) shortage. In schools across the nation, teachers are being asked every day to give up their prep time to cover another classroom because there is no substitute available. Often times, teachers are asked to take on an entire other class in addition to their own just to meet coverage needs. Take it from someone who has seen this first-hand, that wears on you fast. This is only getting worse by the day as more teachers leave and less line up to take their place. 

So, there you have it. The latest polling data confirms even my most dire prophesies. And if rabidly anti-public education legislation continues to get passed in states across the nation as it currently is, we could be a month away from disaster. 

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7 Replies to “Tipping point: Could public education be a month away from collapse?”

  1. Spot on Shane. I like to say teaching is the most flexible inflexble job….. Its not like you can just decide to head to the beach for a week during the school year. And I always think its more of a pain to set up sub plans than just showing up.

    1. Simple solution: Teachers need to be paid more. A significant pay increase is all that is needed. For example, if teachers made double their pay.. things would change…. quickly.. There is plenty of money in the system… it’s just not going to the teachers. Some of it goes to retrain and retrain and retrain and retrain and retrain teachers and God knows where else it goes.. Teachers are practically volunteer. I have a teaching license. As a single mom, I could not afford to teach at my kids’ school. I wanted to but couldn’t make enough money.

  2. Now the CDC is talking about droppin school mask mandates because Covid numbers are dropping. Yet staffing shortages mean schools can’t afford to have even one teacher at home sick. There aren’t enough substitutes either, which is why my cousin obtained a special license to help out. Yet within two days she caught Covid! Schools need every tool available to fight this disease so they can stay open!

  3. Excellent article. I know fellow teachers will read it and appreciate your summation of the last 20 years. Shane on the republicans and the right for gutting out once great public education system!

  4. A statewide walkout would be a good solution if there was a way to compensate those teachers who could not afford to do so. Or, does that give Republicans what they want? What do they really want? They have not shown that they have a better alternative to the current system.

  5. Spot on, Shane. I would have a couple things to add, tho.

    I started teaching in the mid 70s (ending nearly 40 years later) and _rarely_ had the long “vacation” in the summer. I always had a summer job working retail, or construction, or anything to bring in more income. We also had inservice activities during the summers, many of which were unpaid! Others of my colleagues would spend the summer teaching summer school, something I was too “tired” to do.

    Once, during a summer month, I mentioned to the local postmaster in my small town that I was on my way to work. He questioned me about “vacation” and I commented that a teacher’s contract was only 9 (or later, 10) months and we didn’t get any “paid vacation time.” He didn’t believe me and essentially told me I was lying. The general public doesn’t know that teachers often “work” during the summers and make about 20% less than others with the same education levels.

    There’s the standard “understanding” about teaching…that anyone can do it. Everyone who has gone to school has “seen it done” by a professional and thinks it’s easy. And finally, there’s the societal attitude about teaching that it’s “women’s work” (tho few would say that any more) which means lower status, lower pay and less respect from the supermajority Republican (often misogynistic) legislature.

    Things got better thru the 80s and early 90s and the took a turn for the worse during the last two decades. It’s no wonder that there are fewer young people going into teaching.

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