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Falling Short

There have been a lot of headlines made recently about the struggles school districts across the country are faced with as they grapple with a nationwide shortage of teachers. Closer to home, it’s certainly a cause for great concern and so Florida has taken measures to address the growing problem. But is it enough? The answer to that pressing question depends on who you ask.

Clinton McCracken is a former art teacher who spent more than two decades working for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) and now currently serves as the president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. He says that the problems associated with the teacher shortage continue to deepen—and perhaps are spreading as a result of a shortage in substitute teachers as well.

“The shortage leaves schools short staffed and students underserved. … This dynamic results in the burnout of existing staff, and we continue to see fewer and fewer applicants with an interest in pursuing a career in education,” says McCracken.

To that end, a Gallup Poll conducted last year uncovered that teaching was the top profession for burnout in the United States. And according to the National Education Association, 55% of educators plan to leave the profession much sooner than they originally planned for—a growing trend that was only exacerbated by the difficulties brought on by COVID-19.

“During the pandemic, an increase in retirements was noticed in addition to a major decrease in those graduating from colleges of education,” says an OCPS spokesperson via email.

In attempt to examine the issue closer, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) conducts a teacher vacancy survey at the beginning of each school year. Cassandra Palelis, FLDOE’s deputy director of communications, calls it “the most accurate and consistent way to measure and compare open vacancies year by year.” The results of their findings would suggest the issue is not as dire in Florida as it may be in other parts of the country.

As of Sept. 1, 2022, the total number of teacher vacancies in the state was 4,442 as reported by the school districts. That number represents approximately 2.4% of Florida’s roughly 185,000 teachers or 1.2 open positions per school on average.

“The U.S. Department of Education in August 2022 found that nationwide, each school had about three unfilled teaching positions on average. With Florida’s average of 1.2 open positions per school, the state’s teacher vacancy rate was less than half that of the rest of the country,” Palelis offers.

Palelis goes on to mention that the FLDOE identifies “high demand teacher needs” that need certification areas where the gaps between supply and demand are the greatest. For the upcoming school year, the greatest areas of need include exceptional student education (ESE), English, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), science-general, science-physical, reading, math and tech education.

But with a dwindling pipeline of young teachers entering into the world of education, it could only be a matter of time before Florida’s number of vacancies begin to rise. In an effort to combat this trend, steps are being taken to both recruit and retain top talent.For instance, OCPS has a partnership with UCF and Lockheed Martin that provides tuition-free master’s in education degrees, with an emphasis in the areas of math and science. To date, more than 100 OCPS teachers have graduated from the program.

In addition, OCPS has a K-8 para-to-teacher pipeline program in place with UCF and Rollins College. The program provides a pathway for paraprofessional educators to become future teachers with OCPS.

“In the current teacher market, it is important to continue to expand partnerships and visibility while we continue to focus on retention of staff by supporting para-to-teacher pathways, master’s and doctoral programs,” says a OCPS spokesperson. Additionally, “the OCPS Talent and Acquisition Team recruits and builds relationships with teacher candidates while providing innovative strategies, opportunities and consistent visibility within our partnerships.”

Palelis touts the recent initiatives led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which she says are designed to “elevate and celebrate” Florida teachers. Some of these measures include securing $1.1 billion in the state budget to provide salary increases for teachers and other eligible instructional personnel; investing $3.5 million to develop the Dual Enrollment Teacher Scholarship Program; establishing the Military Veterans Certification Pathway to provide a five-year temporary educator certificate to eligible veterans; and extending the temporary certification time period from three to five years.

Despite these types of efforts, McCracken says teachers—especially longtime teachers—are not being fairly compensated and that their increase in pay remains at a lower rate than what is handed out to new educators just beginning their career.

“State laws governing ‘performance pay’ have resulted in veteran teachers taking home less pay than they would have received based on the original schedules that the Florida legislature did away with. Veteran teachers need to be made whole, and teachers need to be paid fairly and equitably for the extraordinary value and service they provide,” he says.

McCracken and the CTA have proposed an economic package to the district that would begin to address this matter. They’ve also proposed several supplements that he says would help to reward teachers who are helping our most vulnerable students.

“Our teachers with the most experience help mentor new teachers and are experts in the field,” says McCracken. “We need to be able to retain more of them in this noble career.”

While the issue cannot be resolved overnight, folks are certainly paying close attention to what lies ahead. And that includes a growing number of parents worried about the impact it will have on their children.

“We hear from parents that understand that teachers’ working conditions are their children’s learning conditions,” says McCracken. “They understand that we share a sincere and abiding love for public education. They see that we share an interest in guaranteeing that all students receive the best quality education [possible].”