Today, six years after the start of the 2008 recession, we are seeing how deeply the financial turmoil impacted our education system. School districts across California made drastic cuts in their operating budgets, reducing spending by as much as 20 to 30 percent. Because education is a service industry, many of these cuts directly impacted classroom staffing and services to students.
Here in Sonoma County, per-student funding is returning to pre-2008 levels thanks to voter support of Proposition 30. With the economy growing and unemployment declining, districts are restoring staffing and working to fill some of the 160 positions that were cut between 2008 and 2012.
Since 2008, California has lost more than 32,000 teachers, which is nearly 8 percent of the teacher workforce. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that half of the reductions came from layoffs and half from retirements.
Many experienced teachers delayed retirement because they were worried about the economic downturn. More than one-third of Sonoma County’s 3,750 teachers are vested in the teacher retirement system and age-eligible to retire this year. This creates added pressure to find and hire new teachers.
But here’s where a good problem — employment opportunities for teachers — becomes a crisis. The latest figures from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing show a dramatic decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Enrollment plunged by more than 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, falling from 42,200 to less than 20,000 enrolled participants. Look at the statistics from 2001 and you’ll find that the decrease is even worse — a horrendous 74 percent.
This issue must be addressed by local, state and government leaders.
We successfully tackled a national teacher shortage in the late 1960s to early 1970s, and we can do it again. Under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, our country actively recruited teachers. During this era, new public school teachers received an extra benefit for their service: a portion of their college debt was retired. For teachers employed in high-impact communities or teaching specialized content, a higher percentage of the debt was retired.
Similar programs are still available at the federal level, and I urge college students to make use of them. I also believe that these incentives should be expanded at the state level. For example, tuition fees at state colleges and universities could be waived for the fifth year of teacher preparation education for students who successfully complete the program and secure employment in a California public school.
To keep pace, California must hire about 14,000 new teachers each year. How will this state and our own county attract its best and brightest into the teaching profession?
In Sonoma County, we have high-quality schools, staffed with caring and dedicated teachers who guide our students to success. This level of staff excellence is critical to the quality of our schools and the quality of our graduates.
Teaching impacts the future. What will Sonoma County’s future be if we can’t continue to find quality teachers for our students?
Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County’s superintendent of schools.