To reverse the teaching shortage in low-income communities, give educators incentive to stay

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To reverse the teaching shortage in low-income communities, give educators incentive to stay

While educating our youngest generation is a huge responsibility, it comes with an unexpectedly low monetary return. We call $15 an hour a "living wage" and actively debate how soon it will become our national minimum wage. But this minimum wage is sometimes not even afforded to one of our most celebrated professions: teachers.

We have a teaching shortage in communities across Illinois and the country because we pay our educators too little and incentivize the most experienced to move to more affluent, higher-paying districts. The impact on Black and brown students and low-income communities is particularly dire, with many students in the greatest need taught by teachers with the least experience. The pandemic has made it worse.

The annual Educator Shortage Survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that 77 percent of districts in the state are short of teachers. Association President Mark Klaisner, speaking for a school superintendent in a rural Illinois setting, put it in plain terms: "If I lose one of my math teachers, that’s half of my math department."


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Teacher pay has also worsened in the past 20 years. According to federal data, the average teacher salary in 2019 was $64,470 – though this obscures lower pay in less affluent school districts. The national median salary of early childhood education (ECE) teachers in 2019 was just $30,520, qualifying many teachers for the SNAP program.

Right now, if a teacher is looking for modest salary increases, they usually obtain expensive graduate degrees – adding student loan debt that, too often, dwarfs the accompanying pay raise.

All of these factors hurt students with the most need. So how do we keep our educators in school districts that need them the most? Honor their commitment by putting money back in their pockets and ensuring they have the school-based supports.

I introduced the Retaining Educators Takes Added Investment Now (RETAIN) Act along with Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), which creates a fully refundable tax credit for teachers in Title I schools. The tax credit would also apply to paraprofessionals, mental health providers, and school leaders because having experienced, qualified leadership and other support services is key to allowing teachers to focus on teaching. Because of the importance of ensuring children have the preparation they need to be successful in elementary and secondary school, we also make early childhood educators, program providers, and program directors eligible for the tax credit.

In order to ensure that we incentivize experience, the tax credit increases at key inflection points in an educator’s career – points where they are more likely to leave. For example, years one and two, the tax credit would equal $5,800. The next two years, that would increase to $7,000. By year 10, a teacher could receive more than $11,000 back in tax credits.

An investment in our teachers is an investment in our kids and grandkids. It’s also an investment in the future and well-being of our communities. So, as lawmakers send tweets, post on Facebook, and put out statements recognizing teachers for the incredible work and sacrifices they have made, let us remember there is more work to do.

Our thank you tweets cannot keep teachers in the classrooms where they are needed the most. If we want to reverse the teaching shortage in low-income communities, let’s give our educators an added incentive to stay.

Durbin is the senior senator from Illinois and the Senator majority whip.

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May 17, 2021 at 08:25AM

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