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Oregon Senate proposals aim to ease teacher shortage

Schools nationwide and across Oregon have been facing educator shortages for years, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Oregon lawmakers are considering bills this session they believe will address the problem’s root causes. Among them are Senate Bill 279, which would make it easier and less cost-prohibitive for teachers from other states to work in Oregon, and Senate Bill 283, an omnibus bill that would tackle retention, pay and several aspects of educator recruitment and hiring practices. 

Lawmakers said these bills would address staff and substitute shortages, burnout and barriers to entering public education professions. They build on last session’s House Bill 4030, which provided $78 million in grants to support personnel in K-12 schools across the state. 

“Oregon has struggled to find and retain the educators we need to meet our kids’ needs, and the pandemic only made it worse,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chair of the Senate education committee and the lawmaker who requested both bills.

“Based on feedback we’re receiving from our bipartisan, statewide educator workgroup tackling this issue,” he said, “we believe these bills will build a thriving, competitive education workforce and deliver better outcomes for students and teachers alike.”

Educator shortage

According to a 2021 report by the Oregon Education Association, districts statewide started the 2021-22 school year with significant vacancies. Some were scrambling to fill upwards of 180 unfilled positions. This, multiplied across the state’s 197 districts, meant Oregon schools were short thousands of educators, reflecting national trends.

Additionally, Oregon was supposed to meet a goal of one nurse for every 750 students by 2020. By 2021, the nurse staffing ratio was six times that, with one nurse for every 4,572 students, according to the association’s report. And Oregon’s decades-old special education teacher shortage continued as well, with the average turnover for this workforce 46% higher than other teachers.

COVID also worsened the need for substitutes, teachers in rural areas, classified staff – such as custodians and instructional assistants – and a racially diverse mix of teachers. Oregon schools throughout the pandemic have leaned heavily on teachers with emergency licenses that allow them to fill roles in high-needs situations for up to a year, and oftentimes fellow teachers and administrators are the ones stepping in as substitutes. 

However, the latest state data, released in November, show Oregon is making progress. 

Schools have rebounded with about 3,000 more school employees than before COVID-19 – growing from about 70,180 full-time equivalent positions statewide in 2019-20 to 73,653 in 2021-22 – even though schools are serving nearly 30,000 fewer students overall.

But some districts are still struggling, and education experts said students’ needs are far greater than before the pandemic, with students requiring more academic, social and emotional support.

“When our students show up for school, consistency helps them learn,” said Reed Scott-Schwalbach during a recent Senate hearing for Senate Bill 283. Scott-Schwalbach is a high school Spanish teacher and the president of the Oregon Education Association, representing 41,000 member educators statewide.

“Staffing shortages mean students constantly have to guess who their bus driver is, who will be teaching math that day, who will be providing them reading instruction,” she said, adding that every school job is directly connected to another. “Schools with a constant revolving staff do not become the safe, consistent places developing youth so desperately need.”

Teachers from other states

Senate Bill 279, which sailed through the Senate on Wednesday with 27 in favor and only two Republicans senators against, Kim Thatcher of Keizer and Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, would make it easier and less costly for out-of-state teachers to work in Oregon by authorizing the state to join a proposed Interstate Compact on Teacher Mobility

The compact is being organized nationally by the Council of State Governments, the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

Proponents of the Senate bill – including the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which oversees statewide teaching standards and licensing – said in a recent hearing it would remove barriers that make it hard for qualified educators to move to Oregon for work. 

Officials with the commission said there are more than 675 educators statewide currently on reciprocal licenses, meaning they’ve had to pay both states they’re licensed in and meet additional requirements to teach here. 

Members of the interstate compact wouldn’t have to pay as much or wait a year on a reciprocal license when working in a new, member state. Instead, they’d be granted the closest equivalent license, after completing a background check. This is especially helpful for military spouses who move between states more frequently.

Washington and Oregon are among nearly a dozen states considering joining the compact.

Recruitment and retention

The amended Senate Bill 283 aims to tackle several aspects of educator recruitment, retention and hiring practices. 

The bill would create a statewide educator workforce data system, establish funding to help diversify the state’s education workforce, provide more protections for classified staff and make substitutes district employees with paid training. 

It would also allow newly retired teachers to convert their teaching licenses into substitute licenses at no charge – helping address the need for experienced substitutes – and it would ensure higher pay for teachers and classified staff who work in special education by creating a 20% pay differential for these educators.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Umatilla, testified to the Senate committee in favor of the omnibus bill.

“(Why) would a Republican be here testifying on this?” Smith said. “Well … I’ve been in our schools. I’ve raised five kids, and I know what our classified school employees do. I know how valuable they are. And to me, this is an issue of fairness.

“During this time when our classified school employees are in high demand,” he added, “public employers should be required to provide both clear expectations and transparency that will best ensure fair and equitable treatment of those hard-working folks who are taking care of our kiddos.”

Senate Bill 283 has not been scheduled for a vote. It needs to be scheduled for a work session by March 17 to continue in the legislative process. 

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon.

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