The Struggles Of The Illinois Teacher Shortage In Districts Big and Small
Montmorency is a rural K-8 school district of just around 230 kids in Whiteside County. They've had an opening for a special ed teacher for about a month. They've only had three teachers apply so far.
"You know, we had the special ed position open for two weeks before I even had an applicant," said Alex Moore, superintendent at Montmorency. He also went to school here; in his words, he grew up about two cornfields away.
"And at that point, I was actually seeking out people myself, I hate to have to do it. But you have to do a little bit of recruiting, you have to recruit maybe even educators from other districts and sell them on what a smaller district has to offer," he said.
Seventy miles northeast is Rockford. Their public schools serve just over 28,000 students. They're also struggling to find teachers, especially for positions like special ed. At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, they had 18 unfilled positions in special ed. That's according to the State Board of Education.
Earlier this year, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools released a statewide survey illustrating how the teacher shortage issue has grown worse.
85% of surveyed districts say the shortage has been a problem for them, whether small or large. That's up 6% from last year.
"I wouldn't say that it's going to get better in the next year or two. I actually think that most districts are really going to have to be creative and institutions of higher ed have to get really creative," said Matt Zediker, chief HR officer at Rockford Public Schools.
Lee County has been especially hard hit. Bob Sondgeroth is the regional superintendent of Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside counties. He said it's not just Lee that's struggling, but everyone -- especially rural districts.
"There's two reasons for this: one is that sometimes their pay is lower. The other thing is that a few years back, probably five or six years now, the state of Illinois changed the way that they licensed teachers," said Sondgeroth.
He said those licensing changes have made it more challenging for smaller districts to be flexible and use teachers for different positions and grade levels, depending on the openings they need to fill.
The most openings statewide are in special education, along with foreign language teachers.
Some openings are more surprising, like for art or music teachers. In the past, districts had been shuttering those programs and prospective teachers were shying away from those fields.
Sondgeroth says things are beginning to change, which poses a unique problem. "And so now that we're starting to be able to reinstate those programs, there's no teachers out there," he said.
Zediker says the same problem exists in big districts like Rockford:
"So yeah, we're looking at art, music, PE. Those are all, instead of having 25 applicants per position, we may be only having 10 or five. Even in general elementary education where you'd see 80 people apply, we're seeing 20 apply."
Rockford and other more urban districts also face a lack of diversity among teachers. Zediker says that's a problem that should be talked about more.
"Our students of color now are the majority versus our white students, and to have students maybe go through our system and never have a teacher that looks like them is impactful," he said. "Research is very clear having at least one teacher increases the success rate, astronomically."
Back at Montmorency, the student population has also changed. But superintendent Moore says it's not demographics as much as sheer numbers.
"One of the biggest things that's changed, I could tell you from the time I was here as a student to now is the number of students," he said. "So I when was here, there were 450 students, as a child, and now we're at like 230. So you kind of see that mass exodus of Illinois, and we've really seen that."
Sondgeroth says the state is starting to take steps to help the situation.
He says the new evidence-based funding formula is a good step. Among other things, he'd also like to see testing for incoming teachers overhauled. For example, he says the basic skills test should get axed. There's a bill in the Illinois Senate that would do just that.
Moore hopes the state doesn't go through with the $40,000 teacher minimum salary. He says it puts an unfair burden on smaller districts and doesn't consider cost of living variance.
"That sounds all great fine and dandy. But smaller districts like us -- that's going to put a load on us. And we may at some point have to look at ways to cut costs," said Moore.
Sondgeroth is concerned that the teacher shortage could exacerbate society's already souring perception of teachers.
"It seems like the teachers get the blame for everything. Teachers get the blame for the budget crisis because of the pension fund, right? It's not the teachers' fault that the state legislature didn't make their contribution over the last 30 years or 40 years," he said.
Since Sondgeroth's remarks, an anonymous death threat was sent to several Illinois legislators and a public radio station. It threatens anyone who would receive a state pension -- and says that would include public school teachers.
Despite the state's efforts to try and curb the shortage, districts surveyed said they believe it will get worse in the next few years.