Let’s first process the numbers, before we commence with the inevitable spin.
In 2011-12, 1,884 Idaho teachers left the profession. Idaho had 17,851 certified teachers in 2011-12. In other words, this is more than a 10 percent turnover.
That should be a wakeup call. We should all at least be able to agree that recruiting — and retaining — quality teachers is the key to a quality education. Losing more than a tenth of the teaching work force isn’t how you get it done.
But in the bitter debate over the future of public education, the teacher turnover numbers have, predictably, become a choice talking point.
The Idaho Education Association blames the growing exodus on state schools superintendent Tom Luna and his Students Come First K-12 overhaul. Luna’s office blames much of the turnover on the recession.
The reasons matter, of course. And guess what? It’s complicated.
The state Education Department says more than half of the departures fall under the broad heading of “personal reasons” — which includes eveything from retirement and maternity leave to taking a job in school administration or the private sector.
Is this partly a matter of demographics — an aging work force? No question about that. Could discontent with the Students Come First laws drive teachers to retire or take a private sector job? Sure. But when Idaho has been suffering through a downturn, as Luna reasonably notes, could large numbers of teachers really flee the classrooms for new jobs? That doesn’t wash.
Now, here’s another interesting number from the Education Department: Only 51 teachers left Idaho for a teaching job in another state. (The annual average, for the four preceding years, is 140.5.) These low numbers would seem to disprove the suggestion that Idaho is a training ground that loses good teachers to neighboring states that offer better salaries.
But here’s an unsettling fact. In 2011-12, 143 teachers were layoff victims — a five-year high, and the average the four preceding years was 57.8. The layoff numbers are modest as well, but they are heading in the wrong direction.
This trend can’t be surprising. Not when Idaho’s K-12 budget still languishes below pre-recession numbers, when school districts have depleted one-time federal stimulus dollars, and when many districts have been forced to seek voter-approved property tax levies to plug the gaps. Some districts have been able to keep their staffs whole. Others haven’t.
And how many teachers based their “personal” moves on local funding woes? How many experienced teachers looked at the numbers and decided to retire early? How many star instructors got fed up and opted to take their talents to the private sector? We’ll never know.
This we do know. Over the past two years, 3,160 teachers left the classroom, an annual average of 1,580. In the three preceding years, the annual average was 766.7. Some of this is inevitable, and a reflection of an aging work force, but this is a troubling trend.
The Students Come First elections — and the debate over teacher merit pay — bring the teacher turnover issue into focus. But if we don’t also pay attention to fundamental issues of school funding, we’re sleeping through the wakeup call.