Teacher vacancies reach crisis level

Hoppy’s Commentary
West Virginia State School Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano says the teacher shortage has reached the “crisis” stage. “Right now we have 718 teacher vacancies across the state,” Martirano said. “That means our young people are not receiving the quality education they deserve by a quality teacher.”

The number of teacher vacancies is rising dramatically, from more than 400 two years ago, to 593 last year and now over 700 this year. The vacancies are filled using short and long-term substitutes, educators with permits but no degree in education, and retired teachers.

The vacancies are particularly acute in special education, where 238 positions are vacant, followed by 92 open math spots, 79 openings for elementary and early education, 43 vacancies in science, 41 in English, 36 openings in administration, 32 in career and technical education, 32 in reading, 31 in foreign languages, 20 in the arts and 96 in other disciplines. McDowell County has the most vacancies with nearly 40 out of 225 teachers.

One of the reasons West Virginia has trouble filling the teaching slots is the pay. The starting salary for a first year teacher this year ranges from a high of $36,400 in Monongalia County to a low of $32,675 (23 counties) for an average of $33,685. That ranks West Virginia as low as 46th nationwide.

Martirano has proposed a three-prong approach to solving the problem:

–Creation of a Teacher Corps: Martirano wants to incentivize young teachers to work in underserved areas for three to five years by helping them pay off their student loans. For example, $1 million would enable 200 teachers to pay off up to $5,000 of their debt.

–Relaxing hiring rules: Martirano says the complicated state hiring rules make it difficult, if not impossible, for county superintendents to make firm job offers to recent teaching graduates until late in the summer. He says by then, other states have already locked down the best and the brightest graduates.

–Increasing base pay: Martirano credits Governor Justice for proposing a two-percent pay raise for classroom teachers, but concedes that won’t be enough by itself to stop the rise in teacher vacancies.

West Virginia may never be wealthy enough to raise the base teacher pay to levels that compete directly with border states. Given the state’s current budget challenges, it’s possible that even Justice’s modest two-percent raise won’t pass.

However, Martirano’s other two ideas would be much easier to adopt. It doesn’t cost anything to streamline the convoluted hiring rules so superintendents are empowered to hire qualified candidates on the spot. And his Teacher Corps concept is an economically efficient way to fill the need.

“We’ve got to do something different because the current ways of operating are not working,” Martirano said on Talkline last week.

That’s for sure. The dearth of certified, excellent teachers in remote areas and hard-to-fill disciplines creates a kind of educational death spiral; children receive lower quality education, leaving them unprepared for college and the workforce, which further increases the economic and social challenges for a region.

Martirano is leaving at the end of this school year, which means his proposals probably aren’t going to be taken seriously. That’s a shame because they make sense, and might actually help reverse the untenable trend of teacher vacancies.