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In rush to fill teacher vacancies, Illinois has lots of proposals and no immediate solutions

Illinois is preparing to end another school year with more than 1,000 teacher vacancies, a crisis that has ignited legislators and the state’s new school board.

There’s a flood of new bills in Springfield aimed at filling those positions. Meanwhile, the new state schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala has asked for an extra $2.4 million to roll out a competitive grant program that would reward innovative ideas for addressing the shortage. Only six weeks into the job, Ayala will be at a public hearing on Wednesday, where advocates and educators are invited to voice ideas for recruiting and retaining more teachers.

But will legislators listen to teachers before pushing ahead with proposed solutions? Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, a former teacher and principal now leading the Senate Education Committee, hopes so. “The experts are the people in the field,” she said. “But I don’t know if their knowledge always trickles up.”

The legislature so far has zeroed in on bills that would make it easier for teachers to gain credentials or that would increase pay.  But in the mad rush to address the issue, experts warn that some legislative proposals — such as one that would nix a basic skills test required for licensure — could erode the quality of new recruits. They also argue that a crucial part of the conversation is missing: the lack of respect for teachers.

“Many of us are kind of stumped by this question of ‘how do you change the narrative?’” said Robert Muller, dean of education at National Louis University.

So far, the bill that has gained the most momentum contains a multitude of changes, from ending the basic skills test for teachers, to loosening a salary cap, thus allowing for more substantial pay bumps, to introducing payments for student teachers, who currently go unpaid.

Last year, Illinois legislators passed a bill, setting a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers, but then Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it, saying performance-based pay was preferable to salary minimums. One of the bills now in Springfield would raise teacher’s minimum wage to $40,000 — right now the minimum is $10,000 a year, a figure set back in the 1980s.

But whether legislators who represent individual districts can build consensus on proposals that would impact an entire state remains to be seen. “Legislators are sometimes only worried about their school districts,” Muller said. “The board should be providing guidance to the General Assembly for what to do. But I think everyone feels under pressure when there are shortages.”

Will the legislative efforts be enough to lure more teachers?

“I’m very interested in the ways we can support and elevate the profession, but I’m not sure all these things are going to move us in that direction,” said Josh Kaufmann, the executive director of Teach Plus, which runs a range of teaching policy fellowships for educators.

Kaufmann would also like to see proposals to diversify the teaching workforce and to forgive college loans as a way to demonstrate that teachers’ work is valuable. 

A policy report called Teach Illinois, commissioned by the state board and released last fall, also laid out several recommendations. Among them: Roll out a statewide marketing campaign to tout the benefits of a career in teaching.

Amid the focus on high-stakes testing, the often long hours, and pay that hasn’t kept pace with inflation, many teachers say they feel blamed for failings linked to problems beyond their control.

“Educators are asked to solve all the problems in their classroom. We expect them to be trained in every ailment [and] they get very little pay.” Sen. Bertino-Tarrant said. “Nothing is going to change until educators feel supported.”

As the new state board takes an in-depth look at the crisis and as legislative proposals continue to wind their way through Springfield, Muller muses about what he would tell anyone considering a career in the classroom.

“If you want to give back to your community and make a substantive contribution, what better way than teaching?” he said. “Seasoned educators who are passionate about what they do have the ability to change lives.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect that the $2.4 million request from the Illinois State Board of Education is intended for a competitive grant process.