Teacher Shortage Downstate Looks Different From Chicago Shortage

Some Illinois school districts are waiting on Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign a few bills they hope will alleviate a shortage of teachers.

Statewide, school districts reported more than 2,000 unfilled positions last school year, with 43 percent of those in Chicago Public Schools alone.

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At Wednesday’s board meeting, CPS is recommending the board designate about 16 teaching and staff positions as “special needs” positions. That means, the district would be allowed to hire people for those jobs who don't live within the city limits as is required under CPS policy for almost all other positions.

The district did this same thing four years and while this may not be new, the problem hasn't changed. None of the positions that were tough to hire for then, have gotten any easier to fill. They include some of the typical hard-to-hire positions, like special education teachers and bilingual teachers, language and STEM teachers, and nurses and counselors.

The district says 80 percent of its empty positions come from this list of special needs positions.

Numbers from the Illinois State Board of Education, which issued a report on this for the 2016-2017 school year, show CPS has 853 unfilled positions. That's 43 percent of all unfilled positions across the state.

The biggest hole is for paraprofessionals, like teaching assistants or aides, and special education teachers are a close second. 

The district says it’s working with colleges and universities that train teachers to encourage those future teachers to earn certification in special education. It's working with foreign consulates to source language teachers.

But in some cases, the district says there just aren't enough teachers being trained to meet the need. Take physical education for example. The handful of physical education teacher training programs in the state only produce a few handfuls of physical education teachers a year, and they're not enough to go around. Even hospitals have a nursing shortage, and they pay better than the school district.

All that said, the Chicago Teachers Union argues this shortage is manufactured since its membership has been cut in recent years due to school closures and layoffs during the budget crisis. What's more, it says recent policies have exacerbated existing challenges with fully staffing the district.

“We have a new teacher evaluation system that focuses on identifying supposedly bad teachers, but really ends up creating stress and pushes people out of the profession. We’ve had challenges in staffing because we have difficulties in our conditions, in our communities,” said Jen Johnson of the CTU. “We have neighborhoods that are disinvested in, and schools where children come to school with a great amount of trauma where we don’t actually provide the staff in the first place that is adequate to help those students, which drives retention to be a challenge.”

Statewide, the board of education believes an additional 20,000-24,000 educators will be needed through 2020, and that accounts for projected declines in K-12 student enrollment.

A regional school superintendent for northern Cook County said the districts in that area don't experience a teacher shortage the same way so many districts downstate do. Therefore, several of the bills on the governor's desk now wouldn't make much difference for districts in our area.

One of them, for example, would create a minimum teacher salary of $40,000. In Chicago, the base pay already begins at just over $50,000.

Another bill would allow licensed, out-of-state teachers to teach in Illinois without meeting additional requirements.

One problem many districts do share, though, is finding enough substitute teachers, and there's legislation that would allow retired teachers to pick up more hours and also create a short-term license for substitutes with a certain amount of training.

Some of these bills were sent to the governor in late May and mid-June. He has 60 days to sign them.

Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter @BrandisFriedman

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