OPINION: Alaska’s teacher shortage is here. The Legislature needs to help.

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In the spring of 1989, I volunteered with Alaska Teacher Placement at its annual job fair in Anchorage. My job was to help districts sort through the hundreds of resume packets that they received from the fair’s more than 1,000 registrants, many of whom traveled from out of state. The competition for the teaching vacancies was fierce, and I will never forget that, in an attempt to be noticed, one of the candidate’s packet-cover was a full-page picture of him on a beach wearing only a small swimsuit. The state’s support of public education in 1989, which included a deluxe retirement system and comparatively high salaries, was a shiny lure that drew hundreds of job seekers to Alaska each year. Today, for several reasons, this lure’s sheen has dulled, causing many of our school districts to struggle to fill their teacher vacancies.

The Institute of Education Sciences annual report on education spending shows that in 1989, Alaska spent 169% of the U.S. average per pupil amount. Today, this figure is 127%. Although the state still spends more per pupil than just six other states, our districts’ salaries and benefits no longer hold the sway of the past. For example, this year in Tacoma, the starting salary for a teacher with no experience was $57,717. In one of our larger districts, it was $50,151. Across the country, many states, including Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and New Mexico, are responding to their own shortages with sharp funding increases. Also of note is that Alaska’s above average funding per pupil is tempered by the high cost of operations and many schools lacking an economy of scale. Earlier this year, the Alaska Department of Education (DEED) reported to the U.S. Department of Education that 22 of our state’s school districts are experiencing a teacher shortage. DEED also tracks first-day teacher vacancies and found that there were more than 200 unfilled openings at the start of the school year.

These vacancies present a logistical nightmare for schools. On the retirement front, an average of 280 Tier II Teacher Retirement System teachers are retiring each year. While this is expected, they are being replaced by teachers placed in the defined contribution tier of TRS who, by most accounts, are a far less stable workforce. At the national level, the number of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs is down by 340,000 since 2010. Alaska’s dependence on teachers from out of state that was established well before statehood, continues today, with more than 50% of our teachers prepared by Lower 48 programs. And while there are several efforts to increase the number of Alaskans who teach in our state, it is highly probable that for the foreseeable future, Alaska will need to continue to import more teachers than are interested in teaching here. So, what to do?

1. Increase funds for education. The state needs to increase the amount that it spends on education to allow teacher salaries to inch up so that they are more attractive to teacher candidates. Two bills to do this (HB 272 and HB 273) are moving in the Legislature.

2. Directly support the recruitment of teachers. The state needs to support the various local pathways to becoming a teacher. SB 225 in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee does this with proposed policy for apprentice teachers and teachers-in-residence.

3. Directly support districts’ retention efforts. Retaining teachers is in many ways, more urgent than recruiting new ones. SB 225 proposes to establish a recruitment and retention fund that will support districts’ activity in these areas. The Alaska Statewide Mentor Project (teachers) and the Alaska Council of School Administrators (principals and superintendents) offer mentoring support to help retain new staff.

4. Make the retirement system more attractive. Although few can dispute the fiscal decision in 2006 to move away from the defined benefit of TRS Tier II, the state must recognize that the defined-contribution of TRS Tier III does little to help districts recruit teachers to Alaska. The Legislature needs to decide what it can do to make Tier III more attractive. HB 220, being considered by the Legislature, would reestablish a defined-benefit tier.


Now that it is the end of April, districts across Alaska are well into the recruitment phase of their annual hiring process. But they do so knowing that the supply of teachers who are interested in teaching in Alaska is likely lower than it has ever been. The Alaska Job Fair in Portland in early April attracted just two people. The good news is that the Legislature has already introduced bills that will either directly or indirectly help districts recruit and retain more teachers. Passing these bills will help our state’s districts counter the limiting effects of Alaska’s teacher shortage.

Steve Atwater is a retired teacher, superintendent and dean of education. He currently contracts with the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project.

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