Dan Walters

Opinion: A shortage of teachers hits home

As a severe recession gripped California a half-decade ago, the state budget took a beating and it hit education hard.

School spending (including local property taxes, but not federal funds) plunged from a high of $56.6 billion in 2007-08 to as low as $47.3 billion three years later – mostly by postponing constitutionally mandated aid to schools.

However, when the economy began to recover and voters passed a temporary tax increase in 2012, school spending rebounded sharply.

In 2012-13, it jumped by $10 billion-plus to $57.9 billion and will increase to an estimated $68.4 billion in 2015-16 under Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget and likely even more.

The additional spending is of two kinds – natural increase as schools claim their legal share of the revenue stream, and repayment of deferrals from the recessionary period.

At Brown’s behest, much of the new school money stream is being directed into his pet educational reform, the Local Control Funding Formula, that gives districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English learner” students additional funds to raise their academic achievement.

The multibillion-dollar infusion is intertwined, however, with two other factors – a desire of teacher unions to make up for years of austerity by negotiating salary raises, and a worsening shortage of teachers, especially in specific academic areas.

The latter is itself a product of several factors, including an expansion of nonteaching employment opportunities, especially in technical fields, in an improving economy; high college student debt that makes teaching careers less attractive; and a surge in retirements by teachers in the huge baby boomer generation.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued 11,497 new credentials in 2013-14, down 30 percent from four years earlier, and enrollments in collegiate teacher-preparation programs have declined by 75 percent in the last decade.

The drive for higher salaries – Los Angeles Unified, for example, just agreed to a 10.4 percent boost for its teachers over two years – and the teacher shortages have led some districts to look at the LCFF money for relief.

Last month, in response to an inquiry from Fresno, where the teacher shortage is acute, the state Department of Education warned districts that LCFF money is to be devoted to “high-needs” students, not general salary increases.

While local school officials are empowered to decide how the special financing is to be spent, the warning implies the state will look askance at siphoning it into broad salary hikes – although what would happen to noncompliant districts is uncertain.

It’s a minor victory for school reform groups, which have pressed the state to closely monitor the LCFF money. But it doesn’t do anything about the teacher shortage, which will only grow worse.