Aug. 27—Another school year is about to start. Another year of staffing shortages.
Once again, school districts across Maine and the nation are scrambling to fill vacant positions as the long-running educator shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic carries on.
"There is no end to the challenges," said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association.
Maine does not track educator vacancies across the state, so it's unclear exactly how severe the state's educator shortage is on the brink of another school year. But it's clear from local administrators that school districts from the New Hampshire border to the Canadian border have continued to struggle to find enough educators and other staff members to fill all of their open positions.
The Lewiston school district had 114 vacancies out of about 1,500 full- and part-time positions as of last week. Portland Public Schools, which has around 1,450 total employees, had 51.
"At this point, people are preparing to reorganize and start the year without being fully staffed," said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association. "It's coming down to the wire."
The issue is particularly acute among educators trained to teach students with special needs. There is a shortage of special education teachers at every grade level in Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Other teaching jobs are slightly easier to fill than last year at this time, some say.
"Hiring is a little better than last year in most departments," Bonny Eagle Superintendent Clay Gleason said. "But in special education, we don't have as many candidates."
"Unfortunately, the need for special education staff started probably five or six years ago and has been constant," Gleason said. "Those positions are hard to fill."
The lack of adequate special education staff means school districts continue struggling to provide the appropriate education required by law to some of their most vulnerable students.
"Special education students need individualized and specialized instruction to benefit from their education," said Walter Kimball, the University of Southern Maine special education department chair. "That requires training and preparation."
Low pay, what some see as a lack of respect for the field, and challenging work all are blamed for the overall shortage of educators, especially those serving special-needs students. Historically, the shortages largely affected urban and rural districts with higher levels of poverty while sparing wealthier and suburban districts. That changed over the past few years. As the COVID-19 pandemic, the politicization of education, and consumer price inflation made the field more challenging to work in — and less affordable or attractive to join — vacancies grew, and the impact spread.
Now, years past the height of the pandemic, some school districts report an easier time hiring. District administrators in Maine, including those serving Lewiston, Portland, Old Orchard Beach, and Bonny Eagle, said they are having more luck filling vacant positions than last year, despite still having vacancies. But others lag and experts say the shortage isn't over.
"Even if Maine overall seems to be coming out of the teacher shortage, that doesn't mean there aren't pockets still experiencing an acute teacher shortage," said Edward Fuller, a professor of education at Penn State's College of Education. "There are still schools that will suffer. High-poverty schools particularly have a harder time finding teachers. They're always the first to get hurt from a teacher shortage and the last to recover."
Although not entirely a silver bullet, there's widespread agreement among educators, administrators, experts, and policymakers that ending the educator shortage will require raising pay.
"A lot of districts have let their salaries lag," said Jennifer Steele, an associate professor at American University's School of Education. "In the long run, if salaries adjust, the job will be more sustainable, increase quality and reduce turnover. The need to raise salaries is overdue."
The minimum salary for teachers in Maine is $40,000, lower than teacher salaries in any other New England state and in the bottom half of starting salaries nationally. Maine's livable wage — the amount of money one must make to cover basic needs — for a single person is $34,382, according to data from World Population Review.
"Compensation is a huge barrier to attracting and retaining people," Leavitt said.
Maggie Ruff, a second-grade teacher at Hollis Elementary School, is beginning her fourth year and makes $43,000 a year. It can be tough to live on, she said, but she hopes teacher wages go up so she can afford to stay in the career for the long haul. "You have to really want to be a teacher," she said.
Suzanne Reynolds is going into her second year of teaching first and second graders at Fort O'Brien School in Machiasport and earns $41,500 a year. She waitresses year-round to supplement her income and is frustrated that she makes better money in the restaurant. "I joke that I'm going to quit teaching to waitress full time," she said.
Leavitt, among others, championed a bill to raise the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 by the 2027-28 school year. The bill received broad support, passing in the House and the Senate, but didn't receive any funding on the appropriations table. That means it is held over to next year when it will face the same competition for funding.
"It's disappointing and discouraging," said Leavitt of the decision by the appropriations committee and legislative leadership not to fund the bill. "We need to be addressing the issue of salary and wages for educators. The work of a teacher has gotten harder and we need help from the state to raise wages."
Starting salaries vary across the state depending on the school district. Minimum starting salaries for classroom teachers with bachelor's degrees ranged from $40,000 to $50,500 in the 2022-23 school year. Minimum starting salaries for teachers with master's degrees ranged from $40,600 to $55,500 the same year.
The average salary for all teachers in Maine is $58,757, while the national average is $66,745, according to the National Education Association.
Leavitt said she will continue to work hard to raise educator salaries. But in the meantime, the teacher shortage drags on, and it's weighing on those who remain in the field, she said.
"Staffing shortages are a major concern for teachers," Leavitt said. "They know they will have to shoulder the work that would otherwise be shared with colleagues if every position was filled. People will figure things out, take on extra work, and do right by our kids, but it's taking a toll the longer this goes on."
The shortage is also taking a toll on students, who may end up in larger classes or with less experienced, qualified, or specialized teachers. Experts say this is particularly true for students with special needs — where there has been a particularly severe shortage for years — and for students in high-poverty rural and urban school districts.
The shortage continues to exacerbate preexisting achievement disparities between affluent students and students living in poverty, Fuller said. "States should not become complacent. We need to look at the schools that have always had teacher shortages."
"To me, it's a moral question for state leadership to address," Fuller said. "Is every child worth investing in or are only some children worth investing in?"