Teaching, Learning & Education

By Michael Watkins, County Superintendent of Schools

California’s Educational Resources Crisis

Teaching and learning are experiences that shape, or have shaped, all of our lives in one way or another. Nurturing an insecure, or troubled, student to blossom into a resilient and successful learner, or seeing pride in the eyes of a child discovering that he or she can read for the first time, are occurrences that happen daily in our county’s classrooms. Teachers have the power to both transform us and help mold us into who we will become. Santa Cruz County schools have a long and rich history of quality and excellence. Yet unless swift and decisive action is taken at both the local and state levels, that tradition could vanish overnight.

Funding for Education

The economic recession of 2007- 2012 hit California’s K-12 school districts particularly hard. State funding for schools fell by 20%, a catastrophic drop in revenue that has yet to be recovered, and is not expected to be fully restored until after the year 2020. California, once tops in the nation in per pupil spending is now 41st. Furthermore, California spends $2,000 less per student than the national average and we have the highest student to teacher ratio in the nation at 25:1. In contrast, the cost of warehousing a prisoner is set to top $75,000 by next year. The painstakingly slow trend towards equity in fully funding our schools in such a prosperous state is shameful. Our students deserve better.

Impending Teacher Shortages

A combination of three factors: a shortage of qualified teachers, low teacher salaries and affordable housing has the ability to derail public education in Santa Cruz County and elsewhere. According to the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford, three out of every four districts in the state report a shortage of qualified teachers. As a result they have had to hire untrained teachers and substitutes, assign teachers to teach classes out of their field of expertise, cancel classes and increase class size. Many of the districts in our county are in the same predicament with over 100 non-fully credentialed teachers or interns assigned to classes.

With enrollment in teacher preparation programs near historic lows, change is needed now. The California Legislature made a feeble attempt to address this issue but came up short. According to the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) “legislative leaders failed to grasp the critical nature and impact of our teacher shortage.” Four California Bills that were steps in the right direction, AB586 (Holden), AB1217 (Bocanegra), AB 807 (Stern), and SB 436 (Allen) were either held in suspense or failed the deadline due to inaction. Added to this, nearly 2 million teachers in the United States will be eligible for retirement within the next few years. Can our democracy survive with an uneducated or under-educated populace?

A beginning teacher’s salary in Santa Cruz County can range from $45,000 to $60,000, depending on college units and degrees. This is not nearly enough to afford the rental market much less the purchase of a home. When I speak to prospective teachers, I feel obligated to temper their enthusiasm with a lesson in Finance 101. College debt has now surpassed credit card debt, and the cost of going to graduate school to receive a teaching credential can easily run in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. This does not include undergraduate debt already incurred.

Unfortunately, the math does not pencil out unless you are fortunate enough to have wealthy parents or receive a scholarship. If teacher pay had risen in proportion to per-pupil spending since 1970, the average teacher would make more than $120,000 today. The Teacher Salary Project founded by my colleague and friend Ninive Calegari is determined to shine a light on this inequity and raise awareness about the impact of inadequate compensation in the teaching profession. Across the nation, 46% of teachers in public schools leave the profession within five years. 39 states mention raising teacher compensation as a need in order to recruit and retain the best and brightest college graduates. I didn’t see California on that list.

Proactive Possibilities

In an effort to address these issues locally, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education is collaborating with the 10 local school districts to embark on an initiative to grow our own teachers by providing grants to qualified para-professionals that are already in the field, and partnering with teacher credentialing programs to offer a local option for prospective teachers. In addition we are also looking to work with city and county leaders as well as private investors to address the teacher housing crisis.

Each and every day teachers and students in Santa Cruz County experience the joy and transformative impact of teaching and learning. We cannot afford as a community to jeopardize those meaningful experiences. Our students deserve no less. A strong commitment to investing in public education can no longer be delayed.

Published in the Aptos Times, August 1, 2017.