Teachers are underpaid in relation to their level of education and importance to society – a fact nearly everyone can agree on.
But, before prospective educators can even set up their own classrooms for the first time, they face a costly degree program and a series of expensive proficiency tests – factors that can make the bar too high for low-income Nebraskans and people of color.
Last week’s hearing before the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee on an interim study resolution from Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks underscored the problems faced by the state, which has struggled for years with teacher shortages in certain subject areas, in addition to increasing the diversity of its teacher corps.
Nebraska students most certainly deserve qualified educators. But lawmakers are asking the right questions as they seek ways to ensure more teachers – particularly those from underrepresented populations – can enter the classroom without as many costly hurdles.
Take student teaching, for example. The experience of managing a classroom, with a veteran teacher on hand for support and guidance, serves a vital purpose that’s impossible to replicate.
However, consider the burden that puts on a student-teacher who needs to work to pay for tuition. In essence, it’s not only an unpaid internship, but students must pay thousands of dollars for what’s considered a class – in a situation that makes it nearly unmanageable to hold outside employment.
After completing that course of study, teachers often must also complete one or many standardized tests to obtain their certification, paying hundreds of dollars in each instance.
All of those items add up – and quickly.
The dollar amounts aren’t trivial, and education officials and senators alike are pursuing an actionable, appropriate goal by trying to ensure teacher diversity better matches that of students.
In Lincoln Public Schools, 93% of teachers and administrators are white, in comparison to only 64% of students. That chasm grows even wider in some smaller districts in the state, often those with recent influxes of immigrant families.
And those racial gaps don’t just appear in personnel counts; they manifest in lower graduation rates and higher disciplinary referral rates. Conversely, evidence presented at the hearing shows that minority student achievement increases along with the number of teachers of color.
That’s why the ideas being presented – increasing scholarship opportunities for prospective teachers of color and eliminating some burdensome certification testing, among others – make sense.
One word of advice for the committee when it comes to increasing out-of-state recruitment, another idea that was suggested, is to consider funding a statewide bump for teacher salaries. Nebraska’s average starting teacher salary ranked 45th in 2018-19, according to the National Education Association, lower than all neighboring states but Colorado.
Just as the investment in public education is worthwhile for the state’s future, so, too, is a similar investment in the teachers who make it possible.