With two weeks before the start of the 2023-2024 school year, some Catholic schools were struggling to fill teacher vacancies.
A pre-pandemic report on the teacher shortage from the Learning Policy Institute predicted that by 2025, there would be approximately 316,000 teacher vacancies.
But following the COVID-19 pandemic, economic hardship and school violence, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are more than one million teacher vacancies in the United States. Seven percent of instructors (233,000 instructors) were lost between 2019 and 2021. More recent data shows that more than 75 percent of the United States is still experiencing a teacher shortage.
Experts say this is also part of a larger trend — there has been a 19-percent decrease over the past 20 years in students graduating with education degrees, while K-12 student enrollment has increased nationwide.
In the Diocese of Little Rock, schools employ nearly 550 teachers. Approximately 25 vacancies were advertised on the diocesan website, dolr.org, since April, the most in recent memory.
For some Catholic schools in Arkansas, a new obstacle in teacher recruitment was the passage of the LEARNS Act.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law Mar. 8. The law sets a $50,000 annual minimum salary for starting public school teachers and provides incentives for veteran teachers and educators, giving Arkansas one of the highest starting teacher salaries in the country from its previous minimum of $36,000.
With all of these compounding factors working against them, Catholic school educators are working on solutions to recruit and retain teachers.
Theresa Hall, superintendent for Catholic schools in Arkansas, identified some of the reasons for shortages in Catholic schools.
“Being a teacher in any school is not an easy job,” she said. “It is not an 8-to-5 job like some people might have. You're working on weekends, you're always a teacher. And I think just that in itself is not an easy job. We also have those concerns of safety, even in our Catholic schools … we're not immune to a school shooting or something like that. And that again is where some of our money has to go to — more safety measures. So there are a lot of things that I think cause people not to go into education.”
Hall said the diocese is keenly aware of the larger salary gap between public and Catholic school teachers following the passage of the LEARNS Act. While the diocese provides a recommended pay scale for schools to use in order to remain competitive with their public school counterparts, roughly half of the Catholic schools in the state struggle to meet the minimum payscale.
“There are some schools that have made it their mission and their goal to stay within 80 percent of the public school pay, and they’ve done it. Some of them have used endowments … some of them have had subsidies from their parish, which have helped. Some of it is just strategic planning,” Hall said.
Hall said she has been going to job fairs to recruit teachers as well as working with colleges that are educating and training future teachers. Hall has also been working to change the mindset of potential teachers.
“Part of the problem was teachers didn’t understand that they didn’t have to be Catholic to teach in a Catholic school,” Hall said. “We’re also talking to colleges and getting our name out there, and publicizing when we have openings.”
North Little Rock Catholic Academy has been working to fill teacher vacancies. Co-principal Denise Troutman spoke of the difficulties of finding applicants that met qualification criteria, given that classroom experience was vastly different for new graduates during the pandemic.
“We have interviewed a lot of people, but we haven’t interviewed anybody that’s really qualified or willing to take the position,” Troutman said of their two remaining vacancies.
Co-principal Melody Sharp said the pandemic affected teacher availability.
“The teacher shortage from COVID … this is definitely a result of that for sure,” she said. “The teachers that left those positions, they’re just not teaching anymore, and it causes a shortage everywhere, which also depletes the Catholic schools. We’re trying to reach out to the population that has a degree in English or in history or in science, just so we can get them in the field and get them through the teacher licensing program.”
Brenda Hiegel, principal of Immaculate Heart of Mary in North Little Rock (Marche), said while filling positions has been a challenge, all of their positions have been filled. Hiegel acknowledges the challenge of lower teacher salaries.
“I do believe that we are impacted by the salaries that public schools have to offer the teachers, and it’s been challenging competing with that,” Hiegel said.
Right now, Hiegel said she is planning for the future.
“We are looking at our budget carefully and we’re working hard on a plan to get as close to the public school salaries as we can. But the diocese has a salary schedule, so we follow that salary schedule,” she said.
John Rocha, head of school for Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown, said he sees teacher shortage from a different perspective in an area that is seeing economic development and population growth.
“We’ve received a lot of applications for people locally and people who want to move here … for us, it’s more of a fiduciary limitation in terms of our budget. People have stepped up and been there. It’s a matter of, do we have the budget for them?” Rocha said.
Neighboring Springdale School District has the highest paid teachers in the state at $51,000 a year. Rocha said OCA’s teacher salaries remain competitive with public school teachers, even after the passage of the LEARNS Act.
“We use them as our guide post,” Rocha said, by annually increasing salaries to more closely match those of public schools.
Additionally, OCA offers benefits and opportunities not available to public school teachers, such as a 403B retirement plan and health insurance.
“Springdale (and other public school districts) are starting to not offer health insurance in order for them to be able to pay higher salaries in different ways. So we really believe that health insurance is a big perk for our full time faculty and staff,” Rocha said.
Steve Straessle, head of school at Catholic High School in Little Rock, said he knows public and private schools will struggle to fill vacancies.
“Education has become more confrontational than in years past and I believe that's had some impact on a person's desire to get into the profession — and out of the profession,” he said. “Educators are also the first line of defense in every one of society's ills: divorce, anxiety/depression among kids, even polarizing politics. It wears good folks down. So, in short, teaching has become more complicated. Not worse, just more complicated and I believe several are opting out of the profession because of that.”
This year Straessle said he had to come up with new ways to find teachers.
“I used to have a stack of resumes to choose from, but that stack is noticeably smaller,” he said. “We've been fortunate to fill any vacancies with highly qualified and energetic candidates, but it takes more work finding those candidates now. For example, I'll be attending a job fair at the University of Arkansas next month — something we've never done — to line up strong candidates for any vacancies we may have next year.”
Catholic High has committed to continue to pay its teachers the same as Little Rock School District teachers.
“We continue to do that, even with the LEARNS (Act) increases,” Straessle said.
For Straessle, providing a quality education outweighs the headaches caused by the teacher shortage.
“The Catholic schools have challenges in face of the teacher shortage,” he said. “Working to our advantage is the fact the Catholic schools provide a great working environment and the majority of parents are supportive. As well, Catholic school administrators understand clearly the need for supporting classroom teachers and helping them to succeed in any and every way. It's a great place to work. You can't put a price tag on quality of life — professional life in this instance.”
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