Ed Committee hears bills aimed at easing Nebraska’s teacher shortage

1 month ago Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Nebraska teachers, administrators and K-12 education advocates testified Monday before the Legislature’s Education Committee about the scale of Nebraska’s teacher shortage.

The state’s public schools reported nearly 700 unfilled teaching positions at the start of this school year, officials told the committee. Private schools said they were short another 100.

State education statistics show the shortage has been accelerating since the pandemic, with unfilled teaching jobs at the start of the 2022-23 school year up 60% over the previous year.  

The committee heard teacher support for at least parts of three bills proposed to encourage more people to teach and to motivate existing teachers to stay on the job longer. 

New way to qualify to teach

The one bill educators opposed was Omaha State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s Legislative Bill 603, which would let certain nonprofits and companies certify teachers outside of colleges.

Teachers, including Millard Education Association President Tim Royers, testifying for the Nebraska State Education Association, said LB 603 would risk watering down new teacher preparation.

By allowing some people to test their way into teaching instead of requiring them to student teach first and show practical ability, he said, new teachers would lack field experience.

“This bill is aimed at letting already identified companies profit from our teacher shortage,” Royers said.

Melanie Olmstead, who advocated for LB 603 on behalf of American Board’s nonprofit teacher certification program, said it would help prepare more teachers for the classroom during the crisis.

American Board was funded by federal grants during George W. Bush’s administration to develop new ways to certify teachers who hold non-education-related bachelor’s degrees.

Linehan said nearly 800 of Nebraska’s classrooms have been staffed this year by people without proper certification to teach what they’re teaching, many in special education.

She cited Nebraska Department of Education statistics that show nearly 200 more teachers retiring than being hired. She said she was trying to maintain standards but expand the applicant pool.

“This bill is not lowering the standards for teacher certification,” she said. “This provides an alternative route for teacher certification.”

Incentives for new teachers

Teachers were more supportive of Linehan’s Legislative Bill 385, which would earmark $10 million to offer teachers up to three annual $5,000 incentives to stay on the job through their fourth year.

The bill also offered incentives for new teachers in specialty areas where districts have had a hard time hiring, including math, science, dual-credit and special education. 

“If it’s a crisis, we’re not going to be able to do just one thing,” Linehan said. “We’re going to have to do several things.”

Mike Lucas, superintendent of Omaha Westside Community Schools, testified in support of LB 385, saying his district was not yet short of teachers but wants to stay that way.

Several testifiers, including Royers, questioned whether the incentives should be broadened and funded more aggressively to make sure they work to reward existing teachers, too.

Jeremy Ekeler of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents many of the state’s parochial schools, suggested reducing the amount of the incentives to help more teachers. 

Hastings teacher Ben Welsch said he welcomed a new investment in new teachers but said he worried about potential troubles when the funding runs out, a so-called “funding cliff.”

Linehan said she wants to have more discussions about making sure experienced teachers are paid enough to stay but said she focused on new teachers because starting salaries are so low that many quit. 

“These kinds of funds would help you keep that kid in Beatrice or Lewiston,” she said. “If you can’t help them, you’re not going to keep them.”

Fewer fees, paid student teaching

Teachers widely backed Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz’s Legislative Bill 519, which would fund their certification fees, retention bonuses and a teaching excellence program and would pay student teachers. 

The bill’s estimated cost of the bill is about $65 million. Of that, $35 million would pay for a $430-per-teacher retention bonus for public and private school teachers and staff. 

Another $30 million would cover the state paying student loans for student teachers willing to teach in Nebraska for at least two to four years. 

Student teachers who start in rural schools or schools with higher concentrations of poverty could keep the pay after two years. They would have to work four years. 

Linehan and State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion raised some questions about the bill’s cost. Walz said she would work with staff and get back to them about the fiscal note.

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, who supports LB 519, told the committee she worries the day is coming soon when some classrooms won’t have a teacher in them. 

OPS, the state’s largest district, which serves more than 50,000 students, has 300 open teaching jobs, many of them in special ed, she said. 

“We are moving to a point where it won’t matter how we move things around, there will be children who don’t have a teacher,” Logan said.

Teaching certificate compact

Bellevue State Sen. Carol Blood also offered a bill teachers liked, Legislative Bill 413, which would sign Nebraska onto a budding teacher certification compact with other states.

The Teacher Mobility Interstate Compact’s goal, she said, is to make it easier for military spouses and teachers certified in other states to be able to teach in Nebraska.

Blood said she hoped her peers would not wait to see what other states do before jumping on board. Compacts like this already work in Nebraska for health care workers, she said.

Ten states would need to pass the legislation for it to take effect among those states, she said. Teachers from those states wouldn’t need to go through a separate licensing process. It would also let states more easily share data on teachers, including disciplinary actions.

Jack Moles, with the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, said his members often find it difficult to get teachers to cross the border and work in Nebraska schools.

The reason: The state’s separate certification process takes more time, money and testing than some. 

“I think this is a good idea,” he said, “something to really look into.”

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