What California Must Do to Solve Our Teacher Shortage

By Michael Watkins

As the Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools, I have a front row view of California’s growing teacher shortage. Last year, the shortage forced schools statewide to hire more than 10,000 underprepared teachers. Here in Santa Cruz County, we hired 46% more underprepared teachers than we had the previous year.

This teacher shortage has serious educational consequences for our students—especially our most vulnerable students. Teachers on emergency permits are three times more likely to teach in schools serving the most students of color than in schools with the fewest. In Pajaro Valley School District—where 85% of students are people of color, three-quarters are low-income, and 45% are learning English—the number of teachers on emergency permits more than doubled in the past year. Worse yet, when districts can’t find any teachers to staff a classroom, they are sometimes forced to cancel classes or leave positions vacant.

When I think about what is needed to address this shortage, I recall my own pathway into the teaching profession more than 35 years ago. I entered teaching in 1971 in Oakland, California by joining the National Teacher Corps, a federally funded Great Society program that recruited eager recent college graduates to teach in high-need urban and rural schools. We received expert training under the wing of master teachers, were placed in cohorts in a school, and received financial support as we trained to teach and earned our master’s degrees.

As a young African-American man from Oakland, Teacher Corps made it possible for me to afford to become a teacher in my community, and prepared me well for the job. The program also successfully recruited other African-American teachers like me into the profession—a key outcome, as research and experience tell us that students of color—and all students—thrive when they can learn from and be mentored by teachers of color. In fact, many of our current administrators and superintendents of color in California entered the teaching profession through Teacher Corps.

Unfortunately, Teacher Corps fell victim to the Reagan budget cuts in the early 1980s. Today, those entering the teaching profession carry an average of $20,000 in student debt if they hold a BA, and an average of $50,000 if they hold a master’s degree. New teachers bring this debt burden into a profession in which beginning salaries are, on average, 20% lower than those of other college professionals, even after adjusting for the shorter work year. Add to that the exorbitant housing costs in the Bay Area, and it’s no wonder that so few young people are choosing to become teachers.

Fortunately, the California Legislature has the opportunity to address this. Last week, the Assembly adopted a 2017 budget proposal that would provide nearly $100 million to stem teacher shortages. Among other things, this funding would be used to provide $20,000 service scholarships to teacher candidates entering high-need fields, in exchange for a commitment to teach for at least four years. It would also fund the creation of a California Teacher Corps program similar to the Teacher Corps program that brought me into teaching so many years ago. This would allow thousands of well-trained teachers to enter the profession debt-free if they commit to teach in high-need fields and schools for at least four years.

By June 15th, the California Legislature must adopt our state budget. Our students are depending on legislative leaders and Governor Jerry Brown to ensure that the Assembly’s proposal to solve our state’s growing teacher shortage makes it into the final budget. The future of our students and our state are at stake.

Michael Watkins is the Superintendent of Schools for Santa Cruz County, Vice-President of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, and a member of the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators.