Amid a rapidly worsening shortage of teachers in California, progressive lawmakers in the state are exploring an unorthodox option for strengthening public education: barring even more teachers from classrooms.
Earlier this month, Democrats in the California State Assembly education committee greenlit Assembly Bill 221, which would prevent schools that receive federal funding from offering contracts to teachers from organizations like Teach for America (TFA). Although the bill's official language has been amended so as not to mention TFA by name, it stipulates that, beginning with the 2020–21 school year, any school in which at least 40 percent of the pupils come from low-income families would be banned from hiring teachers from third-party organizations unless those individuals commit to teaching with the organization for at least five years.
Statewide, California reportedly employs more than 700 TFA educators in public schools across four regions (the Bay Area, California Capital Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego). But critics of the non-profit argue that its modus operandi—which involves installing ambitious, minimally trained recent graduates from top universities in underserved districts for two-year teaching stints—actually ends up fueling academic disparities in the vulnerable communities that the program hopes to serve.
In an op-ed published by the San Diego Union Tribune on April 12th, Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who first proposed the legislation in January, wrote that the bill had been partly inspired by the 13 years she spent teaching math in the Los Angeles public school district prior to becoming a lawmaker.
"To this day, I carry the guilt of my own lack of preparation as a new teacher and how it affected those first few classes of kids," Garcia writes. "Why? Because they became my students again in later grades and I had to reteach what I failed to teach them the first time. Not for lack of desire, but for lack of adequate classroom experience and training."
"The answer to [the] shortage is not placing untrained educators in schools who leave after a two-year stint," she continues. "When teachers leave after only a few years, it just exacerbates the issue. It's a Band-Aid fix on a bullet-hole problem."
In a statement criticizing AB221, Teach for America cited the deleterious effects the bill would have on California's already dire shortage of teachers as just one of its unintended negative consequences.
"Amidst a massive teacher shortage in California, (the bill) bans public schools with high-poverty students from hiring a highly diverse, proven pipeline of teachers," the statement said. "We urge California legislators to work on solutions that will increase, not limit, the supply of high-quality public school teachers in California."
But California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt says that the shortage of teachers "suggests that districts aren't paying teachers enough," and that "the campaign against teachers over the past five years has disincentivized folks from going into the teaching profession." That deficit has been hardest felt in the same high-poverty areas where TFA makes it its mission to staff recent graduates. Proponents of the bill argue that placing transient, untrained professionals in the state's most vulnerable communities will just exacerbate existing problems—and that only teachers who are dedicated to staying in the profession long-term can ultimately help to improve learning conditions.
"Our most vulnerable students are getting our least trained teachers," Garcia told Poltico. "If they're good enough for poor, low-income schools, why aren't they good enough for the Beverly Hillses of the world? Why do low-income schools have to be the guinea pigs?"
California isn't the only state struggling with teacher shortages in 2019. According to a report released in April by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, teacher attrition is a problem nationally, with data showing that 13.8 percent of educators are either leaving their school or leaving the teaching profession altogether. The report also found that the number of schools that said they were trying to fill a vacancy but couldn't had tripled from the 2011–2012 to 2015–2016 school years, marking an increase of 3.1 to 9.4 percent.
Those changes can be attributed, in part, to a shrinking pool of teaching applicants, as wage stagnation and cuts to public funding deter would-be educators from pursuing teaching degrees in the first place. Those who do choose to become credentialed often find themselves teaching for the first time in schools with the most dire need for more support staff—often low-income districts where instability and a lack of resources quickly overwhelm untested teachers, contributing to higher rates of turnover.
In March, teachers in Oakland, California, ended a seven-day walkout with 11 percent pay raises over four years and bonuses nearly double what the district had offered before the strike commenced. In addition, officials agreed to hire more support staff—including school counselors and resource officers—in an effort to offset educators' workloads. The strike came just months after Los Angeles educators ended a walkout of their own, during which teachers struck a deal to introduce a cap on class size as well as the number of charter schools in the district.
For Pechthalt, the recent mobilizations of teachers across the United States who are increasingly fed up with small salaries, inadequate benefits, and stagnant pension plans has been a sign that a sea-change is imminent.
"Teachers, with the support of communities and parents, are ramping up their militancy, frankly," he says. "They're willing to say, 'We're not going to work until conditions change.' I think it has a cascading effect, bringing awareness to the dramatic underfunding of public education ... not just in California, but across the nation."
California has also been at the vanguard of passing a number of other legislative reforms aimed at strengthening public education in recent years. In 2012, Pechthalt himself was instrumental in popularizing a "Millionaire's Tax" in the state, which then-Governor Jerry Brown later adopted and blended with his own tax proposal. The resultant initiative, Proposition 30, effectively raised taxes in the state to offset an imminent $6 billion in budget cuts to California's public schools. A separate initiative currently being considered for the 2020 ballot, known as the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, would amend the state's Proposition 13, which caps the state's property tax, thus restoring over $11 billion annually to California's schools, community colleges, and other vital public services if passed.
While Pechtalt says he is encouraged by the recent wins and proposals for public education in California—and the boots (or Sketchers) on the ground rallying for better working conditions—he cautions that the coffers of the conservative billionaires opposing such proposals continue to run deep.
"One doesn't want to get too optimistic, I'll put it like that," he says. "We still have very wealthy people who, at the drop of a hat, can drop millions of dollars to promote their campaigns."