Students throughout Illinois are heading back to classrooms, but the current teacher shortage may mean there won't be enough teachers to accommodate them, which down the road may lead to a lowering of classroom standards.
Illinois began to experience a shortage of teachers about five years ago, said Patrick Durley, regional superintendent of Schools for Regional Office of Education 53, which serves Tazewell, Woodford and Mason counties. The pool of qualified teachers applying for open positions has continued to dwindle.
"Every district is feeling the pinch at this point, trying to get positions filled," he said. "It's happening at all educational levels. Some schools are having to start the year with substitute teachers and leave those positions advertised as open throughout the year, so they can secure the properly licensed individuals they need."
At the local level, Pekin's School District 108 was able to fill all 41 of its open teaching positions this year, said Bill Link, District 108 superintendent. However, the hiring pool is not as broad as it was five years ago.
"There's a category we refer to as hard-to-fill positions," Link said. "For example, science and math teaching positions are typically hard to fill. We might have only three people apply for a science opening in junior high, or maybe even two. We had a physical education teaching position open at one of our junior high schools. Ten years ago, we would have probably gotten about 75 applicants. This year, we got three."
Key factors creating the ongoing teacher shortage include a decrease in college students pursuing education degrees and teachers leaving the field to either retire or pursue new careers, said Durley.
"My speculation is that the shortage will continue to grow over the next couple of years," he said.
Teachers are not in short supply throughout Illinois or in every subject area or grade level, said Chris Roegge, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education, a unit within the College of Education at the University of Illinois.
"Shortages are concentrated in large urban and small rural districts," he said in a May 2018 interview with Illinois News Bureau Education Editor Sharita Forrest. "Math, science, special education and English as a second language/bilingual are areas of consistent need. More affluent districts might have hundreds of applicants for open positions, while other districts have none."
In the past, Roegge noted, teachers and prospective teachers were willing to trade off low pay for job security, status and benefits. He believes, however, that the teaching profession has lost status in recent years and post-retirement benefits like Medicare and pensions may also be in jeopardy.
"We've reached a situation where the salaries are still comparatively low, the status has decreased substantially, and the benefits are under assault, too," he said. "So, the two positives that outweighed the one negative are not so positive anymore."
Lauren Lingle, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Intermediate School in Pekin, believes another contributing factor to Illinois' teacher shortage is that requirements to earn a Teaching Certificate have become more demanding.
"Since I started teaching four years ago, the requirements have been the same," she said. "But there are more tests you have to take and pass to become a teacher than there were in the past. And these tests and the classes they have to take cost money."
Ben Diggle, a social sciences teacher at East Peoria Community High School, agreed that Teacher Certification requirements have become more difficult to complete. He added that East Peoria High School has not had difficulty finding qualified candidates for full-time teaching positions. However, he believes the pool of available substitute teachers has dwindled.
"There's quite a bit more to the process of becoming a substitute teacher than there was even a decade ago," he said. "It used to be that you just had to have a four-year college degree. Now, you actually have to have a certification and pay application fees to get it. That makes it harder for the administration to fill substitute teaching positions."
Diggle added that EPCHS has not yet felt the pinch of the state's ongoing teacher shortage, but he expressed concern that the quality of education may suffer if the scarcity continues.
"The class sizes will be much bigger," he said. "At that point, we wouldn't be able to work on in-depth projects. Teaching would become more about saying 'Here are some notes. Write them down.' And that's not conducive to learning. You would have to lower the standards of the class, not from a grading perspective but from the perspective of how deep you can get into the material you present. Ultimately, I think that would hurt every student."
The shortage has changed the dynamics of hiring teachers, said Link. School districts have had to become more aggressive in what appears to have become a seller's market.
"We can't wait," he said. "Once we post an opening, we have to start moving on it as soon as we get applicants. One day could make a difference, because everyone else is out there looking for the same people you are because all districts are looking for the best and brightest teachers. With fewer of them out there, the market's gotten really competitive."
Durley concurred that Illinois school districts have needed to become more proactive in hiring candidates. Some districts offer incentives like increasing a new teacher's initial pay scale or offering signing bonuses.
"A few districts are looking at developing 'grow their own' programs, where they have high school students who are thinking about going into education," said Durley. "They might offer some student loan relief, or scholarships to go into education and come back to the district as teachers. There are a number of options that districts are looking at to stay competitive."
Illinois' education system received a significant boost in late June when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 5627 into law. The bill was a bipartisan initiative spearheaded by the Illinois Board of Education, and it made several changes designed to expand the statewide pool of available full-time and part-time teachers.
To make it easier for out-of-state teachers to work in Illinois, the legislation provides full reciprocity for out-of-state applicants seeking Professional Educator Licenses (PEL). The law seems mostly geared toward attracting substitute teachers, allowing former teachers whose PELs lapsed due to failure to complete professional development requirements to substitute teach. For the next five years, the state will offer Short Term Substitute Teaching Licenses to qualifying applicants with an associate degree of 60 credit hours from a regionally accredited college or university. During the same period, the state will allow retired teachers to teach for 120 days or 600 hours per school year without affecting their retirement status.
"These are good, common-sense, bipartisan changes that will offer real help toward easing the teacher shortage," said the legislation's co-sponsor Illinois Sen. Chuck Weaver in a June press release. "This will not completely solve the problem, but it is an important step in the right direction. I look forward to continuing this work with my colleague to put together further, long-term solutions to end what has become a serious crisis in education."
One area Illinois has failed to address in efforts to attract more college graduates to teaching is a particularly important one, according to the Illinois Education Association (IEA). In an August press release, IEA President Kathi Griffin expressed concern that, while Rauner was signing several other education-related bills, he had not signed House Bill 5175, which would raise a teacher's minimum salary to $40,000 within five years. Current state law, passed in 1980, mandates a minimum annual salary for teachers of $9,000 to $11,000, depending on the teacher's level of education.
"These bills fall short of what will really encourage more teachers to join the profession, and that's being fairly compensated for the great work they do," said Griffin.
Rauner vetoed House Bill 5175 on Aug. 24. His objection to the bill was apparently not to the establishment of a minimum salary for full-time teachers but to amendments to the School Code that were included in the measure.
"This legislation was vetoed in February 2018, and still represents bad public policy," said Rauner in his veto message to the Illinois 100th General Assembly. "The Charter School Commission remains a proper venue to appeal these decisions of local school boards before sending parties to court, and the Commission has a history of thoughtfully evaluating appeals to ensure that all Illinois children have access to a high-quality education."