Opinions

Alaska is at risk of an educator exodus

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption in every part of what we thought were our normal lives. In addition to disruptions to our world economy, politics and health, the pandemic has noticeably exacerbated a slow boiling crisis in public education: recruiting and retaining the high-quality educators all students deserve. Throughout the country, school districts grapple with large-scale vacancies, midyear retirements and resignations, and more than 30% fewer Americans choosing education as a career compared to 10 years ago. The group that will feel the largest impact of this educator shortage crisis? Our students. The No. 1 impact within the control of public education on student success is having high-quality educators. If school districts cannot attract and retain educators, students’ educational experiences suffer, affecting communities for generations. Throughout the country, districts are realizing this and offering salary increases and incentives such as transferring more years of experience, funding continuing education, and technology stipends. Here in Alaska, we are doing nothing to attract and retain educators. On both local and state levels, we need to incentivize educators to teach -- and continue to teach -- in Alaska.

In August, once again, thousands of Anchorage educators, including teachers, counselors and nurses in the Anchorage Education Association, as well as vital school staff in TOTEM, started a most exhausting and difficult year without a contract. Bargaining has come to an impasse and is in mediation. The main goal for educators has been to incentivize teaching in Anchorage so that we can have the best educational experience possible for all students. Anchorage should support a contract that does just that.

Anchorage educators deserve a salary that keeps up with the cost of teaching in Alaska. For comparison, the cost-of-living increase for Social Security moving into 2022 is 5.9% and Alaska’s cost of living is notably higher than the national average. Anchorage educators shouldn’t be losing money by continuing to teach in our great city. Anchorage educator contracts should also reflect our professional level of education, expertise and experience. More than half of Anchorage’s educators have a master’s degree or the equivalent, and nearly half have 72 or more credit hours post-bachelors. The continuing education of Anchorage educators rivals, and arguably surpasses, many other professional fields and the majority of it occurs at our own expense, including recertification every five years. Additionally, a majority of Anchorage educators have 10 or more years of vital classroom experience. This is doubly important, as many Anchorage educators will be retiring in the next decade and we must attract and retain high-quality educators to fill those vacancies.

A contract that will incentivize teaching in Anchorage must also support Anchorage educator’s health insurance provider of choice and contribute competitively. The Public Education Health Trust has some of the lowest administrative fees in the nation and works tirelessly to contain costs. Educators are pleased with the consistency and choice PEHT provides in a market full of exponential increases. Any contract needs to honor the system that works and not only allow educators to stay with the PEHT, but also supports PEHT as a model of success, not shift members to other, unproven plans and possibly increased costs.

In addition to salary and benefits, Anchorage educators are continually being asked to do more with less -- namely less time. Our dedicated planning and collaboration time is already well below that of other developed nations, including those many like to compare us to, such as Finland. In addition to a professional salary, educators in Finland have nearly 50% more planning time than Anchorage. Not to mention the planning time we do get is not protected from meetings, additional duties as assigned (code for whatever is needed anywhere at any moment), or covering for other educators due to a substitute teacher crisis ravaging our district. Educators need dedicated time to plan, assess, communicate with families, collaborate with colleagues and work on the hours of non-teaching duties piled on every year. We, especially our elementary educators, are being buried in initiatives and programs with very little time to prepare to implement them in a way that is best for all students. Educators should not be forced to leave school only to put in what is often another full working day just to keep our heads above water. This is not what is best for students. It is leading many educators to re-evaluate their decision to teach and others to leave earlier than planned, right on the precipice of a major educator shortage.

On the state level, the continued devotion to the disastrous Tier III Teacher Retirement System defined-contribution plan, the lone defined-contribution plan for public school educators left in the United States, has made Alaska the worst place for educator retirement in the entire country. This has created the “tourist teacher.” Tourist teachers come to Alaska and gain experience and training, as well as the school district’s investment in their Tier III accounts, only to leave mid-career, leaving our communities and our children with the disruption and cost, estimated at more than $20 million a year.

It gets worse. Alaska educators not only don’t have a defined-benefit pension but are also excluded from Social Security. That’s right: In addition to only what amounts to a 401K and the associated risk, educators working with students right now will have no Social Security upon retiring and don’t even have a choice to pay into it. In fact, those who previously contributed will see benefits significantly cut due to the Windfall Elimination Provision, an archaic law meant to prevent “double dipping” that is now “double cutting” the retirement of Alaska educators. If Alaska truly wants the highest quality educators in front of our greatest resource, our students, we need to pass House Bill 220, introduced by Rep. Grier Hopkins that would allow for a choice in retirement, including a return to a defined-benefit plan. This bill would not only keep educators in Alaska, it brings no additional cost to the state and has built in risk sharing should unfunded liabilities arise. It will save millions due to decreased educator turnover and attract and retain high quality educators for Alaska’s students. As states across the nation face an increasing shortage of educators, there will be no reason to stay in Alaska when other states offer more competitive retirement plans. Nearly 65% of Alaska’s educators are Tier III, and that is a looming exodus that would have a large impact on our students, a double effect as Tier II educators retire.

Day after day throughout our schools, both before and during these trying times, educators and staff have shown again and again their top priority is the youth of Alaska. We are doing more with less. We are working for wages lower than those of our professional peers with comparable education and experience. We are fighting each day to make sure students have consistency in our classrooms as we all navigate life during a pandemic. We are doing everything asked of us and more because we care deeply about our students and our communities. They are, and always have been, our top priority. But in order for us to continue to prioritize students, Anchorage educators should be prioritized with a contract that respects our education and expertise, salary and benefits that keep up with the cost of living, as well as a retirement that incentivizes us to teach, and stay, in Alaska.

Ben Walker is a National Board Certified teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years of classroom experience; he is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year.

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