Enrollment at the University of Wyoming’s College of Education has fallen by a quarter in recent years, its top administrator warned lawmakers recently as he sought to ring the bell about a looming teacher shortage that some districts are already feeling.
Nationally, enrollment in teacher education programs fell about 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to a study by the Learning Policy Institute. Wyoming’s has been smaller, at 25 percent, but it’s still a surprising and sobering number, UW College of Education Dean Ray Reutzel said.
“Think about the unrelenting criticism of the education system in the public press,” Reutzel told the Star-Tribune last week, less than a month after he briefly spoke to the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee. “The press has not been kind to teachers and schools. Forty-five, 50 years ago, teachers were some of the most venerated people in the community. Now they’re bloodsucking ticks on the body politic. That’s about how they’re represented.”
Reutzel said the only talk in the Wyoming Legislature is about “cut, cut, cut,” which doesn’t help the situation, either.
“You never cut your way to prosperity,” he said.
He noted Wyoming teachers salaries, which average about $58,000, are above the national average but have remained stagnant in recent years. States such as Colorado and Utah have been public in their desire to increase teacher salaries. Other states, like Arizona and West Virginia, were home to high-profile strikes and showdowns between teachers unions and statehouses earlier this year.
The problem isn’t just on the enrollment side. Once teachers enter the classroom, they’re spending less time there. Reutzel cited a national study that found that four years after graduation, only 10 percent of degree participants were teaching. The Learning Policy Institute found national teacher attrition at 8 percent — double the rate of places like Singapore and areas of Canada.
Then there are the retirements, as the baby-boomers leave the workforce across all sectors. The result, Reutzel said, is that by 2025, the nation would hire just half of the needed teachers annually.
“We could be staffing classrooms in schools where maybe half are real, prepared teachers,” he said.
“Everything points to a massive prolonged, protracted teacher shortage in the country, and Wyoming is positioning itself to be in a very bad place by not raising salaries and staying ahead of that like they were 10 years ago in order to have that competitive advantage,” he continued. “Then there’s the disadvantage of having few communities with amenities. So Wyoming has to really decide how bad they want this to be.”
Some top administrators have been warning that they’re already feeling the effect. Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent in Sweetwater County School District No. 2, has testified in front of the Education Committee repeatedly over the past 18 months and warning that competition from Utah has left her scrambling to fill spots.
Reutzel said open positions used to have dozens of candidates, and now it’s down to a handful.
He warned of letting the looming national crisis drag Wyoming into a cycle of “boom and bust education,” where — to cope with a shortage — the Legislature lowers the bar for who can be a teacher. Then, performance may dip, and lawmakers — some of whom are already critical of students’ scores — would turn around and cut because the results are poor.
Reutzel said he was willing and eager to sit at the table with lawmakers and educators. He ticked off a handful of possible solutions — putting teacher interns into the classroom, moving away from a near-complete reliance on fossil fuels — that could help moving forward.
Otherwise, Wyoming could see the teaching population in the western half of the state “emptied out,” as Kaumo-Little has been warning.
“From a (college) student’s perspective, why would I do this? I don’t get paid much, I get badmouthed, and whenever we get in a hard spot in the state with tax revenues, my job’s imperiled,” the dean said. “There’s no good incentive to want to go into the education system.”