Public school teachers are on the front lines for the nation’s youth when it comes to education, mentorship and support. But a growing shortage of educators is adding pressure to a group that advocates say is already spread too thin in schools across the country.
Donavon Gardner is watching the scenario play out at the Mason Academy, an elementary and middle school in Detroit. The special education teacher is in his 11th year, following in his mother’s footsteps as a public school educator, drawn to the idea of giving back to his hometown, where he’s coached basketball and mentored students.
“I felt like I was really needed in this community,” Gardner said. “There are a lot of households that don’t have fathers, and I felt like I could fill that void in a sense. I felt my need would be best served in Detroit Public Schools.”
But make no mistake, the job isn’t easy. The Detroit Federation of Teachers said the Detroit Public Schools Community District is currently 250 teachers short, with only 150 spots being filled by substitute teachers. The additional 100 classrooms are vacant on any given day, according to the union.
“A number of educators have left the district because of poor conditions of our classrooms and the attacks on the teaching profession as a whole,” said Terrence Martin, executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “There has to be a commitment from the government to lower class size, and teachers need to be compensated fairly for the work they do.”
The pay scale ranges from $37,000 to $65,000 a year in Detroit, Martin said, lower than neighboring districts. Class sizes can balloon to as many as 40 students at a time, making the job difficult for educators like Gardner, who works with students from second through eighth grades and has 25 students a day. The Detroit Public Schools Community District did not respond to request for comment from CNBC.
The issue goes far beyond Detroit. The American Federation of Teachers, a national labor union, said U.S. public schools must fill 300,000 teacher vacancies each year, but a shortage is growing across the country, exacerbated in inner cities and rural areas. A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute found that from 2009 through 2014, teacher education enrollments dropped by 35 percent, a deficit of 240,000 teachers available for hire over that time period.
“Demographers are saying that by 2025, if these trends continue, we will basically be 100,000 teachers short for every year after 2025,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. She said compensation, poor public school funding, over-testing of students and negative perceptions of the profession have led to deteriorated enrollment in teaching programs across the country.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the U.S. average public school teacher salary was $60,132, according to the AFT, sourcing data from the National Education Association. Benefits packages vary by contract and location.
The annual attrition rate for teachers in the United States is 8 percent, nearly double that in places like Finland, Singapore and Ontario, Canada, where public schools are “well-funded, teachers are given time to collaborate, given opportunities to develop their skills and are respected by school administrators and the public,” the AFT said in a statement. But pay is a major reason the shortage is growing, as many teachers receive bachelor’s degrees and go on to earn their master’s before entering the classroom, where salaries are too low.
The new administration isn’t helping to ease concerns among public education advocates either, with President Donald Trump’s controversial choice of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, known for her championing of school choice. The president’s budget blueprint also cuts 13.5 percent, or $9 billion from the Education Department’s budget. The department did not respond to multiple requests by CNBC for comment.
“We are very worried about what is going to happen to poor kids in rural and urban areas under this administration,” Weingarten said.
Back in Detroit, the teacher federation’s Martin said he’s hopeful the city’s new Board of Education will usher in change, but added that the city’s ongoing budget crisis hasn’t helped the teacher shortage.
“I think we are finally at the point right now that we can start to talk about the turnaround,” he said. “I surely hope the issue with class size and the issue with the lack of teacher service is a problem of the past, and I look forward to working very hard with the school district to alleviate this issue.”
Despite the hurdles that come along with working in a district suffering from the shortage, Gardner said the payoff he sees in the classroom makes the job well worth it.
“The best part for me is the love I get from my kids,” he said. “Seeing them develop and actually teaching them.”