Education: Teachers content, but shortage to worsen

by Judy Ferro

Teachers in 60 Washington school districts have voted for one-day strikes at a time when Idaho teachers are sounding more content than they have for years.

It’s no wonder that Idaho educators are grateful for the remarkable support that Idahoans have shown for schools this year.

Last week voters in 14 school districts approved $18.6 million in bonds and levies. Notus got the go-ahead to replace its 90-year-old elementary school; Marsing passed its first supplemental levy in forty years.

That was just ten weeks after voters in 36 Idaho school districts approved $107.8 million in levies and bonds.

Yes, voters in half of Idaho’s school districts voted this year to pay higher taxes to strengthen Idaho’s schools.

That’s on top of a 7.4% increase–$101 million–appropriated by this year’s legislature.

Wages will get only a fraction of that increase. Also included are funds for classroom technology, school Wi-Fi, teacher mentors, additional teacher training, and students’ tuition for dual-credit classes—plus basic funds for an estimated 167 new classrooms of students.

And, as Idaho Sen. Jeff Siddoway forcefully pointed out earlier this year, wage increases for teachers are important. Idaho is suffering a teacher shortage. A survey of 65 school districts last year revealed that only 10 had started the school year with certified teachers in every position. Last year, Idaho had 1,200 fewer teachers and 14,400 more students than in 2008. That means a heavier workload for nearly every teacher.

Worse, this is a national shortage. We can’t simply recruit teachers from other states. Across the nation, fewer students are becoming teachers at a time when large numbers of baby boomers are retiring.

Washington is one of the states with higher pay and smaller classes that regularly recruits from Idaho. So what’s with the crisis in Washington?

Earlier this year the legislature passed laws that will require hundreds of new teachers: full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes through the third grade; and new graduation requirements in science, foreign languages, and social studies.

This sent school districts scrambling to find for new teachers and additional classroom space.

But now, with the current school year entering its last month, the legislature has yet to come up with funding for the new requirements.

The Washington legislature has been in special session for over 30 days without producing a funding bill. Absurdly, legislators are negotiating in secret. Some say Republicans are proposing a $1 billion increase in funding, and Democrats are holding out for more. Others insist that isn’t the problem at all.

Well, it is a big problem for Washington schools. The estimated cost of the new requirements passed by the legislature is $2 billion—yes, $2,000,000,000. School districts do not have that kind of emergency funds.

Yet, legislators talk of a second special session while districts postpone issuing contracts and setting class schedules. Budget deadlines pass with districts still clueless to what state support they will receive.

So teachers across Washington are calling one-day “strikes.” Now, it’s obvious that one day does not make a real strike; the teachers are not even targeting the school boards that they must negotiate with. .

These “strikes” are demonstrations aimed at increasing public awareness and pressure on legislators to get their job done. (The Idaho legislature’s failure to protect child support collections the first time around looks like a molehill in comparison.)

Unfortunately, Washington’s turmoil could end up being Idaho’s problem. When and if funding becomes available, schools just across our border will be dangling smaller class sizes as bait as they trawl for hundreds of additional teachers.


Education: About Charter schools and Teach for America

While Teach for America has been Idaho’s biggest educational issue this month, a Washington State court delivered a bombshell by declaring charter schools against their state constitution, one with wording very much like Idaho’s.

December 12th, Judge Jean Rietschel of the Superior Court for King County ruled the use of state funds for charter schools violated the constitutional provision requiring that state education revenues be “exclusively applied to the support of common schools.”

Sneaky little word, “common.” One might think that, with state-funded charter schools in 42 states, they could be regarded as “common.” Not so. According to the judge, the traditional meaning of “common schools” is open to all and governed by an elected board.

Of course, appeals are certain, but, as education pundit Diane Ravitch points out, charter schools have used the claim that they are private corporations to fend off lawsuits by employees and, in one California case, to avoid prosecution for misuse of public funds.

This ruling has to be unsettling to the directors and employees of Idaho’s nearly 50 charter schools as well as their 16,000+ students. An uncertain future can only hurt the search for financing for start-up costs and buildings.

Like many educators, I have mixed feelings about charter schools. Some things are good—choice, small, parental involvement, expanded curriculum. Meridian’s technical and medical charter school graduates have marketable skills few others their age have.

The negatives, however, cannot be ignored. Charter schools take not only funding away from public schools, but also many student role models and involved parents. Charter school student bodies tend to be homogenous, depriving their students of exposure to the cultural diversity of our society.

Public schools have been melting pots where a doctor’s kid might be partnered with a homeless one, an Anglo with a Hispanic, an academically-minded student with a so-so-one. Students usually learn to respect and value persons with other backgrounds and skills and to reject stereotypes about “all” members of a culture.

How can our melting pot work when kids only meet students selected for being like them?

We need to address this challenge because it is likely that any court rulings will change the relationship between elected school boards and charter school governance rather than eliminate the charter school.

Now, about Idaho’s problem with Teach for America.

The argument that our teacher shortage justifies hiring teachers with little training rankles. The state of Idaho created our teacher shortage by heavy-handed anti-teacher measures. During the downturn we made heavier cuts in teacher numbers than any other state, cuts which forced teachers to carry heavier work loads and heavier guilt for the kids they couldn’t reach. Our state government followed that up with insults to their professionalism and attacks on their rights. This teacher “shortage” was artificially and purposely created.

Ironically, TFA attracts college graduates into teaching by pointing out the professional skills that teaching requires. Their website implies that teaching for two years will give you the leadership ability to conquer the world. Certainly a different view than our legislature’s, which seems to be that teachers are natural malingerers who must be hounded and controlled.

According to the TFA website, their training enables new college graduates to raise students’ expectations, plan backward from student goals to classroom activities, adapt their efforts for maximum student learning, and work continuously to maximize student learning.

In five weeks.

It brings to mind the story of a man who asked a golf pro how much he’d charge to teach him golf that afternoon. The pro said $5,000.

The man protested that was outrageous. “You teach 12 sessions for only $900!”

“Twelve sessions,” the pro said, “doesn’t require a miracle.”