A teacher in a classroom at Diloretto Elementary and Middle School in New Britain, a school with a large number of English learners CTMirror file photo

The kids have left school for summer. Some teachers have left school for good.

We should all be concerned.

Apart from the loss of life, the pandemic’s greatest destructive effects can be seen in our schools – the effect on childhood mental health, the wars over masking and in- person education, and the learning loss. Each of these is a huge problem. But lingering above them all is a greater one: schools, particularly urban districts like New Haven, are facing a teacher shortage. And while education funding can be complicated, some things are simple. If we want a stable education system, we need to keep teachers. To do that, we need to pay them better.

In general, teachers already face what economists call a “pay penalty.” In other words, when adjusted for education, experience, and demographic factors, teachers earn less than comparable workers. This has been a problem for years – but it is getting worse.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers’ wages in 1997 were 6% less than comparable workers. By 2019, they were 19% less. Connecticut’s wage gap is better than most of the country – clocking in at only 13%. Employment benefits made up for some of the gap, but teachers still come out 10% behind similarly situated workers. It’s no surprise that recently there has been a double digit decrease in enrollment in education programs.

Even before the pandemic, schools in Connecticut cities have had trouble retaining teachers. It’s a problem I’ve seen firsthand with my three children in elementary school. They have all lost teachers midyear at one point or another, sometimes going without a substitute in the classroom, sometimes having their teacher replaced only by a paraprofessional. Further south, Bridgeport reports that it loses one in five teachers from the system each year.

The pandemic has exacerbated stresses on teachers. School districts from Kansas to Philadelphia have seen increases in teachers leaving midyear. The data nationwide has not shown this to be a national trend – at least not yet. But according to surveys by the National Education Association, 37% of teachers were thinking about leaving the profession last August; by February, that number had jumped to 55%. Leslie Blatteau, the president of the New Haven teachers’ union, called the situation of dealing with teacher loss “demoralizing,” explaining how teachers at New Haven schools have to cover for empty spots. “There is a finite amount of time in the day,” she said, “if we have to spend time covering for empty positions, something else is going to fall.”  

Liam Brennan

While the tight labor market makes it easier for everyone – including teachers – to find another job, the Rand Corporation found that teachers were more likely than any other professional to consider leaving their jobs. Twenty-five percent of teachers were contemplating leaving their jobs by the end of the school year. That was higher than pre-pandemic years and higher that the rate of employed adults nationwide. Prior to the pandemic, teachers were already feeling stress levels comparable to doctors and nurses, but the pandemic has made teaching one of the most stressful jobs in the country, with a much greater percentage of teachers exhibiting signs of depression than the general population.

While we all have had to adapt the pandemic’s demands on work, there is a huge difference between what many of us have had to do to deal with work and adult colleagues and what teachers had to deal with guiding young students through remote school and then a return to in-person learning with all its attendant COVID protocols.

When your job is instructing (and wrangling) 20-odd children, the pandemic’s mental health effects are all the more salient. Amidst the great resignation across industries, this situation is particularly ripe for a loss of teachers. And urban schools are at a greater threat for loss when having to contend with “poaching emails” from better-funded districts.

The wealth of school districts tells part of the story; spending per student in the state ranges from $12,772 in Danbury to a high of $41,996 in Sharon. But the economic disparities between towns are only part of the tale here. Almost 40 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that relying on local revenues to fund schools without regards to disparities was unconstitutional and the state supplies funding in a partially successful attempt to even the field.

The devilish little details are often in local spending. Take New Haven and a few of its neighbors; even when the Elm City spends more per pupil, it ends up spending less on teacher salaries.

In 2019-2020, statewide spending per pupil averaged $17,748. New Haven spent more than that, with $18,138 per pupil. Places like Guilford and North Branford spent even more. However in both 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, New Haven schools outspent those towns per pupil, but put less of that money toward teaching.

A quick review of the union contracts, which are all online, shows how New Haven teacher salaries lag behind those of neighboring districts. In 2017, 70% of New Haven school spending was on employees, with 53% spent on salaries and 17% on benefits. In Guilford, 78% of the budget went to staff salaries and benefits; in North Branford 75% does. In a place like Greenwich, which also far outspends the other jurisdictions overall, 85% of the budget goes toward staff salaries and benefits.

Studies have shown that pay differentials have psychological effects – job satisfaction for employees who are paid less than their peers is markedly lower. Add to that the hard economic facts of making ends meet for a family, the additional work needed to deal with a larger English language learner population, students dealing with poverty and racism, greater concerns of community safety, and larger class sizes and it becomes unsurprising that a district like New Haven struggles to hold on to teachers. They are paid less to do more.

This is unsustainable.

Recruiting and keeping teachers in the schools in cities like New Haven should be a top government priority. While there are a number of innovative ideas for increasing the teacher pipeline, the simplest way to keep teachers in places like New Haven is likely the best. Pay them more. Cities are often strapped for cash and, in places like New Haven, the Board of Alders routinely underfunds school budget requests. But as the 2017-2019 school budgets show, New Haven can end up spending more per student, without putting that money toward keeping teacher talent in schools. This must stop.

The school system needs to evaluate every dollar not spent on teacher salaries and explain why it is more valuable than putting that money toward ensuring that the classrooms are well staffed.

While it is somewhat unusual, even in the public sector, for managers to spend more money on staff without a fight, civic leaders need to take dramatic steps to make sure we have teachers in classrooms. Change can only begin by articulating a goal. But currently no one is making the requisite case.

Cities like New Haven need to pay teachers more. We will never address the teacher shortage until we come to terms with that fact.

Liam Brennan is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.