For years, when we heard about shortages in essential workers like teachers or doctors or nurses it was always a little removed from today’s reality. These crises were always “looming,” according to the headlines. In other words, tomorrow’s problem.
In Idaho’s education system, though, tomorrow has come.
Shortages of qualified K-12 teachers — and of community members willing to be short-term substitutes — are affecting every school district in Idaho.
Gov. Brad Little announced $10 million in “Substitute Teacher Recruitment Grants” to help districts train new subs and pay all subs more. At the same time, he said he would give paid time off to any executive branch state employees who substituted in their home districts.
Idaho’s State Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra said she would start substituting herself, and wrote an open letter to the state “asking parents/guardians and community members around the state to help to fill the substitute teacher and staff shortages necessary to keep our schools open.”
This fall, the worst case scenario has already played out in one rural district: The 1,600 student Filer School District in Southern Idaho had to close down for two weeks due to a shortage in teachers and substitutes — and many education leaders fear they could just be the first of many.
And here is the really scary part — these shortages are compounding the effects of the pandemic and are directly impacting our children and their futures. Take a look at this year’s proficiency and test scores, shown clearly in the Idaho Ed News’ Idaho Education Report Card:
- Just 70.1 percent of Idaho’s third-graders were reading at their grade level, down from 74.6 percent in 2018.
- Idaho’s standardized test math scores have dropped by 5 points since 2018.
- English proficiency scores are down 10 points from 2018.
- Perhaps worst of all: Idaho’s student engagement has fallen to a new low — with less than half of Idaho students saying they are engaged in school.
As a mother myself, I know this is devastating to read. But there is hope, because so many Idahoans are working to tackle the problem.
Thanks to a grant from the Åcahand Foundation, the New Plymouth School District’s “Grow Our Own” program offers up to $5,250 for a year of educational expenses so current school district employees can further their education and training to qualify for hard-to-fill positions.
The College of Southern Idaho leveraged a state workforce development grant to create a Non-Traditional Educator Preparation Program so districts could identify local people who wanted to shift careers and take advantage of a flexible program that recognized and rewarded their existing skills and experience.
There are many, many more examples, but still more needs to be done.
This teacher shortage is a major reason Gov. Little recently signed an agreement with Western Governors University to allow Idahoans to use state-funded scholarships for WGU’s online, competency-based programs in teacher education, IT and cybersecurity, health care and business. To mark the agreement, WGU launched an Idaho Partnership Scholarship of up to $4,000 over the course of four six-month terms (which gets you through nearly all of the 27 months an average WGU graduate takes to earn a degree).
WGU, a private non-profit, entirely online university, is home to the nation’s largest teachers college, and more than 1,300 Idahoans already hold WGU teaching degrees. More than 800 are currently students, including Jeffers Erickson, who realized he wanted to engage with students in a more meaningful way when he was managing a Domino’s Pizza franchise in Emmett.
Students like Jeffers are my inspiration as I forge partnerships and connections to make our already low-cost WGU programs even more affordable and accessible to Idahoans seeking to reshape or jumpstart their careers. We’ve partnered with K-12 school districts across the west to offer new scholarships and support for their home-grown teachers — and my job is to do the same with districts across the state.
If you think we can make a difference for you or your local district, I am here in Idaho to help.