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No simple solution to state teacher shortage

The Medford Area Public School District wants to hire an additional high school math teacher.

The district staff did what they always do when they have teacher openings, they advertised it locally, posted it to state websites for educational job seekers and contacted regional universities to put it on their job boards.

There was a time when such a strategy would have yielded dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants. Those times are past, and as of last week, the district had received no applications for the position.

The struggle to fill teaching positions is a challenge throughout the state. This is especially true in subjects such as high school math, sciences, technology and business which have historically seen smaller pools of applicants compared to other teaching positions.

Politicians on both sides of the political aisle are looking for ways to reverse the trend and boost the number of teachers available for districts. Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, believes the solution is to raise the minimum retirement age for public employees from 55 to 59.5 and to allow recent retirees to return to their jobs and collect both pay and retirement for up to three years. This so-called double dipping was eliminated by the Republican legislature as part of then-governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 changes in 2011 which dramatically changed the employment landscape for all public employees.

Democrats in the legislature have put forward similar proposals to Stroebel’s, but without any limit in the amount of time a public employee can receive both pay and retirement.

Increasing the retirement age and allowing people to double dip are short term solutions which do nothing to address the underlying reasons why applications for positions in high demand subjects are down, why people are leaving the profession or why young people are choosing career paths away from the public sector.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for fewer applicants is that in a booming economy there are plenty of other job opportunities, many of which do not carry the stress load inherent on being a teacher. Many of these job opportunities, especially for people with math and science backgrounds, pay more or have greater room for advancement than the public sector.

The other major, but less obvious, reason that good teachers leave the classroom is job dissatisfaction, either through working conditions, unrealistic expectations in regard to workload or lack of support. Lack of support is a critical issue in the profession, especially for new teachers, which causes significant turnover.

Bandaid approaches, such as the retirement changes proposed by legislators, do nothing to address the underlying reasons why quality teachers are in a hurry to leave the profession. Until those issues are resolved, districts will continue to have trouble filling positions and retaining teachers.