It wasn’t that long ago that conservative governmental leaders in Kentucky were complaining that the state was preparing too many people to become teachers. This wrongheaded political argument was really a pretext for reducing state spending to justify tax cuts – mostly benefitting the wealthy. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman likened the efforts of former one-term Kentucky governor Matt Bevin to a “war on education.” The teachers responded with a lot of political activity of their own including some short strikes. But that war left many teachers experiencing a fresh level of unnecessary stress piled on top of the already challenging job of teaching.
Then came the COVID 19 pandemic. In a matter of days, P-12 teachers were forced to move from a traditional classroom environment to an online environment. The technical aspects of such a move were daunting, and teachers witnessed the preexisting inequities found in American families in front of them everyday as they were magnified online by video conferencing during the pandemic.
Reducing state spending is generally a good idea as long as crucial services remain effective. But when the state reduces the number of teachers, classes get larger, and parents get unhappy. Neglecting school maintenance and cutting money for textbooks might work for a while, but it almost always leads to larger problems later. There aren’t that many places to look when seeking to cut state budgets. Krugman quips, “State and local governments…are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force” while police and fire departments make up much of the rest.
Grappling with Teacher Shortages
Now, one disastrous gubernatorial administration and one pandemic later, Kentucky is experiencing serious teacher shortages and bipartisan efforts to address the issue are moving forward in the legislature. The state is looking for ways to make it easier for individuals to become teachers and stay in the profession longer. Last year, the legislature funded full-day kindergarten, and added money to the state’s funding formula, while significantly increasing the teacher’s pension fund. Governor Andy Beshear wants to increase teacher salaries by five percent.
So, how bad is this teacher shortage? The Kentucky Educator Placement Service, a state-run job portal, reports 11,000 teaching vacancies, which is about a quarter of all the state’s public school teachers.
Rep. James Tipton (R-District 53) chairs the Education Committee and is the sponsor of the bill meant to improve the situation, but he says the bill does not go far enough. It’s not a budget year for the legislature and there is no major appropriation attached. “I would prefer we not be in this situation. But this is where we are,” Tipton recently told WHAS. The bill is considered temporary and would allow teacher’s aides to fill in for certified teachers. This may be good during an emergency when classrooms need to be filled, but over the long-term, allowing less qualified persons to teach only serves to weaken the educational experience for Kentucky kids.
Kentucky doesn’t just need warm bodies baby-sitting kids. Kentucky needs teachers who are well-trained to accomplish a crucial job. It always has. It always will.
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About the Author
Dr. Richard Day is professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, & Educational Leadership. He teaches a variety of courses in the elementary education program at the undergraduate and graduate level. As a past elementary school principal, he also teaches course in school leadership in both the masters and Doctoral programs at EKU.