- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (AP) - For more than a decade, Daniel Rasmussen was in the business of teeth, operating his own dental practice in Anacortes.

Two years ago, however, Rasmussen sold his practice to head back to school.

Twenty-five years after graduating from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Rasmussen is pursuing a teaching degree.

“I don’t want to stop learning,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a ‘find what you love and love what you do’ type thing. And I think I found it.”

If all goes well, Rasmussen hopes to enter Western Washington University’s Woodring College of Education by next fall.

“I’m warning my seventh-grade daughter that I hope to be her biology teacher when she’s in high school,” Rasmussen said.

Educators and state officials are hoping Rasmussen’s case won’t be unique. They’ll likely need more people like him - thousands more people like him, in fact.

Facing a shortage of teachers, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is anticipating needing up to 10,000 teachers in the next three to four years - and that’s just for kindergarten through the third grade.

“We’re significantly worried,” said Mount Vernon School District Assistant Superintendent Dave Anderson, who oversees district personnel.

Declining interest

Five years ago, in the midst of the economic downturn, Rasmussen would have faced a far different job market.

School districts throughout the state were cutting positions, and teachers eligible for retirement were hanging on.

State universities had just graduated about 2,000 students ready to head off into the field, said Francisco Rios, Dean of Woodring College of Education.

Only about 900 got jobs, he said.

“That word gets out to people,” Rios said. “Pretty soon people are like, ‘Well we don’t want to become teachers, because there’s no jobs.’”

That was just the start of the teacher shortage.

Not only was the cost of college increasing, but changes in the field of teaching - including pressure from high-stakes testing and the state holding off on cost of living and salary increases - also discouraged potential teachers.

“We’re just not seeing that many students that want to become teachers,” Rios said. “It would be difficult for a student to say, ‘Not only am I going to come in and have a large loan to not get paid very well, but I’m coming into a profession right now that has a very low status.’”

Then there are those who may have thought about becoming math or science teachers who are now being wooed by the likes of Google, Amazon and others who can offer more money.

“All of those things collectively have made teaching a less attractive field than it was 30 years ago,” Rios said.

Job market rebounds

School districts are no longer cutting teaching positions, instead they are adding them.

In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in its McCleary decision that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund public education.

As a result, the state Legislature has pumped more money into the K-12 system, including funding all-day kindergarten throughout the state.

To accommodate all-day kindergarten, the Sedro-Woolley School District had to hire seven new kindergarten teachers, said Executive Director of Human Resources and Technology Darrell Heisler.

“We really saw a crunch two years ago,” Heisler said. “Now we need teachers to cover those other (half days).”

McCleary also mandates having smaller class sizes in grades K-3, and eventually in grades 4-8.

Math, science, bilingual and English Language Learners teachers are the hardest to find, and that’s not likely to change, according to OSPI.

Rural districts, particularly those with large minority or low-income student populations, will continue to have problems finding teachers, according to an OSPI report.

“What we’re all seeing, in general, is it’s getting harder,” La Conner School District Superintendent Tim Bruce said. “You’re getting less applicants for each position.”

Because school districts are hiring more teachers, but there are fewer available in the job market, they have had to draw from their pools of substitute teachers.

That creates another problem.

“All of a sudden, our sub pool just shrunk really quick,” Heisler said. “We’re short subs weekly. Sometimes daily.”

To fill the holes left from a lack of substitutes, sometimes teachers sacrifice their daily planning periods in order to fill in for each other.

In smaller districts, that could mean principals and superintendents stepping into a classroom.

Knowing that some districts draw from the same substitute pool, some local districts try to coordinate teacher professional development days so not every district needs substitutes at the same time, said Burlington-Edison School District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Drayer, who oversees his district’s personnel.

Right now, many Skagit County school districts say they are fully staffed when it comes to teachers.

“The teachers that we hired this year, it was a great pool, even if our application numbers were lower,” Drayer said.

But that can change year to year, especially as the state grapples with Initiative 1351, a voter-approved mandate that if funded by the state could lower class sizes across all grades. This would be in addition to the lower class sizes specified by McCleary.

“We recognize (lowering class sizes) is the correct thing to do, but many of us are wondering, ‘Are we going to get the candidates to pull this off?’” said Anderson. “You’ve got a space issue and a resource issue, the teachers being the resource.”

Strength in numbers

Currently, in-state colleges are producing 1,500 teachers a year, according to a report from OSPI. That’s a number that is going to have to increase in order to counter the teacher shortage.

“We are actively working with our teacher prep programs to see what their capacity is,” said state Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes. “Can they ramp up?”

At Woodring, efforts are being made to bring more people into the teaching field, including through a variety of “alternative pathways” programs, Rios said.

Those include creating channels that allow high school students to fast-track into Woodring, programs for adults already working in schools in capacities other than teaching, and potentially recruiting adults with bachelor’s degrees in other fields.

Rios is also hoping to increase the number of students Woodring can accept.

“We’re ready to step up,” Rios said. “It’s going to be challenging, but I think, all in all, we’re ready for that challenge. The big question will be the degree to which we can get some financial support from the state.”

Lytton said the state is exploring options, including working with the Professional Education Standards Board to determine the scope of the problem and ways to address it.

“What is it that we can do to attract qualified candidates into the teaching profession?” Lytton said. “What can we do, if anything, to help them?”

Recommendations laid out by OSPI include hiring incentives for new teachers, increasing beginner teacher pay, recruiting more teachers from out of state, providing more assistance for teachers looking for jobs and for districts looking to hire, and implementing a high school “careers in education” course, similar to the “Ready Washington Teachers” program.

Still, Rios is worried that might not be enough.

“We need people to get (here) and we need to make sure that if we open the doors and we have the slots that students want to come,” Rios said. “That is the thing that is most anxiety producing for me, is that so many people have been turned off to thinking about teaching as a profession that even if we were able to bring more people in that we won’t see the students standing at the door.”

Lytton also recognizes it’ll take more than words to solve the problem.

“I want a winning team,” she said, comparing teaching to professional sports. “Their players are paid nice sums of money, with expected results. We need to put value on a very important profession in our state. How do we create that winning team? It isn’t by not giving them cost of living adjustments and a fair wage that they deserve.”

This year, the state gave districts more money and approved a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for teachers. It did not, however, provide funding for those increases, meaning districts had to pay for the raises themselves.

“We’re definitely using local levies to supplement salaries in our teachers, classified (staff) and administration,” Heisler said. “The state doesn’t pay for salaries completely.”

The reliance on levies to pay teachers, some say, means the state is falling short on its obligation to fully fund basic education.

“The McCleary thing has to be decided,” Heisler said. “When you talk about your computers and your desks and your pencils and your people, those are all basic education.”

The state still has to pump $3 billion to $4 billion into basic education in order to comply with McCleary, Lytton said.

“We know we have a problem and now we have to do something,” she said. “Our kids deserve no less than for us to attract great teachers and pay them a good wage.”

___

Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, https://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

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