Indiana put itself on a path toward its current teacher shortages. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the problem.

An annual survey by Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education showed that 96.5% of Indiana school districts that responded reported teacher shortages this school year. More than two-thirds of districts responded — 199 out of 290. That’s the highest percentage of shortages since the first survey in 2015.

The pandemic put every school and district under unprecedented pressure. Schools had to toggle between teaching students in person and online, upending teachers’ normal patterns of delivering lessons, grading and coaching kids.

The wearing of face masks — the most effective tool then to protect kids and adults in those buildings — turned into a surreal, political food fight last school year. Indiana gave teachers no special consideration in getting vaccines that had federal emergency approval.

Because of all the challenges, said Terry McDaniel, the ISU professor of educational leadership who oversees the survey, “(W)e are seeing educators being burned out, scared, disappointed and no longer enjoying the profession. We are also seeing fewer people entering the profession.”

But Indiana’s teacher shortage was a problem before the pandemic. One primary cause was salaries, especially starting ones. With the General Assembly resisting calls for legislation to raise teacher pay, Gov. Eric Holcomb assembled his Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission.

Indiana ranked ninth in the Midwest and 38th nationally in average teacher pay, according to the commission. Even more troubling was a Rockefeller Institute report showing Indiana ranked last in America in the increase in average teacher pay from 2002 to 2019.

The group recommended the state allot $600 million annually to boost teacher pay to an average of $60,000 and minimum starting pay of $40,000. Ruling GOP legislative leadership didn’t leap to meet that goal during the regular session, though legislators eventually approved a state budget with the $600 million yearly. That happened after a $3 billion infusion in COVID relief from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan.

The lawmakers’ hesitancy stems from an ideological mindset that has pervaded for a dozen years, perpetually demeaning the performance of public school teachers and schools. It’s taken a toll.

Last month, the legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Education mulled ways to deregulate state education policies to alleviate the shortage. It considered letting local districts license teachers, according to a Chalkbeat Indiana report. Such a switch could cause problems for teachers moving to a district where they aren’t licensed.

Legislators asked John O’Neal, an Indiana State Teachers Association policy researcher and lobbyist, whether the existing state licensing process delayed hiring. That factor was slight, compared to larger causes of teacher shortages, O’Neal answered.

“There are other reasons ... like pay and benefits, ... working conditions ... and professional respect that are probably more of a factor influencing those teachers’ job decisions than how fast the (licensing) process is,” Chalkbeat Indiana quoted O’Neal.

Indeed, those are the causes of Indiana’s teacher shortages. COVID-19 simply amplified them.

Terre Haute Tribune-Star

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