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EDITORIAL: Add teacher shortage to the list of big problems Illinois must solve

Students work inside their classroom at Brentano Math and Science Academy. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Students work at tables in their classroom at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Chicago. Schools in Chicago and across Illinois have a severe shortage of teachers.| Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Here’s what a teacher shortage in Illinois looks like on the ground:

In west central St. Clair County, 40 teaching jobs went begging last year, 35 of them in the impoverished East St. Louis public schools. In neighboring Madison County, 16 jobs were left vacant. In east central Vermilion County, 42 jobs went unfilled.

Chicago Public Schools, the largest district in the state, had 779 vacant teaching positions.

Statewide, more than 1,500 teaching positions (which includes other jobs essential to a good school, such as speech therapists) were left vacant last year, state data show. Another 1,300 support jobs, such as clerks, went begging, too. Those 2,800 unfilled jobs were a sharp increase from about 2,000 in 2017 and 1,900 the year before.

How do those numbers play out when it comes to actual learning? According to a new report, schools were forced to raise class sizes, hire teachers who weren’t fully licensed in a particular subject area, cancel classes and programs, and downgrade courses to online-only instruction.

This is no way to educate our children. This is no way to build Illinois.

If legislators are serious about putting Illinois back on track to fiscal and social health, they’ll add “finding good teachers” to the list of serious problems our state must address, right up there with ballooning pension debt and crumbling infrastructure. Without good public schools, Illinois has little shot at reversing an exodus of middle-class families or attracting new families, not to mention businesses looking for well-educated workers.

A solid public education is essential to giving working-class kids a solid chance to climb the economic ladder and prosper.

The numbers are, sadly, not surprising. Study after study has found a nationwide teacher shortage problem. The new report calls Illinois’ shortage a “crisis,” especially in central and southern Illinois. Based on a survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, the report found that 85 percent of school districts reported problems with teacher recruitment, up from 78 percent in 2017. More than three-fourths of districts said they are getting “significantly fewer” qualified teaching applicants now compared to five years ago.

Money, of course, is a major factor driving the shortage, as Nancy Latham of the Council on Teacher Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign pointed out in a Capitol News Service interview. The vast majority of teaching vacancies are in poorer districts that just can’t pay enough to attract and keep good teachers.

State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) has re-introduced legislation (SB10) to require a minimum salary of $40,000 salary for any Illinois teacher, to be phased in over five years. The legislation passed last year, but outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it.

Good teachers deserve good salaries, and higher salaries would draw more people to the profession. But Manar’s bill, though we support it, probably wouldn’t put much of a dent in the problem. Fewer than 8,000 of the state’s 130,000 teachers earn less than $40,000 now. A better approach would be for the state to live up to its constitutional obligation to be the primary source of funding for schools.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 2020 budget would pump $375 million into the school funding formula, which is $25 million more than what the state is required to provide under its new school funding formula. That’s a start, but it’s just for a single year. A graduated income tax would pump more money into state coffers, some of which must go to education so that Illinois can finally get out of the school funding basement, compared to other states. Providing a meager 24 percent of school district funding doesn’t cut it.

The report suggests other ways to ease the teacher shortage, such as making it easier to get a license to be a substitute teacher, and expanding special programs to develop and recruit teacher candidates. The Illinois State Board of Education last year suggested still other fixes, such as more money for mentoring new teachers and for school residencies to better train new teachers.

All of this makes sense, if Illinois wants to make teaching a more attractive career — one that parents will steer their children toward rather than warn them against.

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