Editor’s note, Sept. 21: Pulaski County says the report used the wrong data for the county. We’ve noted below where Pulaski’s updated numbers fit.
Not long after the new school year started, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported that more than 600 students at Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania County were taking math and English online “because there is no licensed teacher to instruct them in-person.”
I assume we can all agree that this is bad.
You may have seen some more bad news recently — “Teacher vacancies peak this year.” That news came via a recent report by the General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which was directed last year to study why the state has a teacher shortage. Now that teacher shortage is even bigger, and in some places shockingly high, with Charles City County topping out at 21.5%. Before we all jump to conclusions, let’s take a deeper dive into what JLARC had to say.
1. The teacher shortage has shot up since the pandemic.
From the 2015-16 school year to the 2019-20 school year, the number of unfilled positions each year stayed pretty consistent, just under 1%. Then for 2020-21 school year, the first after the pandemic hit in spring 2020, that rate edged up to 1.1%, which might just be a statistical blip. But in the three years since, it’s surged, and this year is 4.8%, more than five times what it was before the pandemic. The obvious question is: Why?
2. We’ve had more teachers leaving the profession than entering the profession for years, but now that exodus has accelerated.
The nation as a whole has a workforce problem, driven by demographics. In many professions, we have large numbers of baby boomers who are aging out of the workforce — and because birth rates have been lower, we have fewer workers to replace them. This isn’t a problem just for education. I don’t think I’m being alarmist if I call this a crisis: We have many government programs (such as Social Security) that are based on a lot of younger workers paying into the system to provide benefits for older retirees. That worked quite fine once upon a time; now the demographics are different and they don’t.
That’s a subject for another day, but the point here is we’ve been running a deficit for some time: more teachers leaving the profession than entering it. “The deficit between newly licensed teachers and those leaving averaged about 1,250 annually in the years preceding the pandemic,” the report says. What’s unusual here is that we’ve seen a sharp spike since the pandemic, leaving a deficit of 5,482 teachers per year. That’s why we’re seeing all these teacher shortages now when we didn’t before. So why are those teachers leaving at greater rates now?
3. Nearly half of those who are leaving are leaving because they’re unhappy with the profession.
Before we get to that, we need to acknowledge some demographic realities: 78% of Virginia’s teachers are female. The median age of a Virginia teacher is 43, putting her in that “sandwich generation” where she may be taking care of both her own children and her aging parents. The JLARC study found that nearly half of those teachers who left the profession either moved or stopped teaching to care for children or others. There may be nothing the state can do about that: In our society that burden of child care or elder care more often falls on women than men. Meanwhile, 46% said they left because they were unhappy with being a teacher — those are the ones we ought to pay attention to.
When questioned further, those ex-teachers cited multiple reasons for leaving the profession: 75% cited inadequate support, 70% the workload, 64% the school leadership, while 55% mentioned an inadequate salary. The salary problem is one that money can solve. The others, not so much.
JLARC did not get into those issues in this report but pointed to a previous study in 2022 about how the pandemic has changed the educational environment: 56% then said students’ behaviors had grown worse, 43% said student anxiety and mental health had worsened, while 40% said their workload had grown bigger because of vacancies. Almost half — 47% — also complained about lack of respect from parents and the public. If you’re dealing with a classroom of rowdy students, maybe a class bigger than in the past because classes had to be combined because of vacancies, and you know the parents aren’t going to back you up, and somebody just showed up at the school board meeting to complain about teachers, why wouldn’t you leave for a better-paying job? There are many public policy questions where the general public can’t really participate beyond voting or firing off an email to their legislator; here’s one where they can. So where are all these vacancies?
4. Teacher vacancies are not uniform statewide. They’re generally highest in localities with large Black populations.
This may be one of the most troubling parts of the report. JLARC doesn’t offer an explanation for this, it merely presents the data: “Virginia school divisions with large populations of Black students tend to have higher teacher vacancy rates. According to a data analysis conducted by JLARC staff, divisions with mostly Black students had teacher vacancy rates in SY2022–23 that were 6 percentage points higher than divisions with almost no Black students, controlling for other differences across divisions.”
5. That means the highest vacancy rates tend to be in Southside.
The disparity in vacancy rates across the state is quite large. Ten localities — seven of them in the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia — had no vacancies this year whatsoever. But 14 localities — five of them in Southside — had vacancy rates in the double digits. Of note: If you look at the report, you’ll see the figure is six of 15. However, that report also shows Danville at 40.4%, nearly twice as high as the next highest in the state. Cardinal’s Danville reporter, Grace Mamon, asked the Danville school system about this and was told a staffer inadvertently sent the wrong data to the state. The Danville school system’s website currently lists vacancies for just three full-time teaching positions and one part-time position. Since we don’t know how many vacancies Danville truly had when the report was compiled, for our maps we’ve simply listed Danville as “no data available.” For what it’s worth, 3.5 teacher vacancies would appear to give the city one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state. If we drop Danville out, that would change the statewide average but probably not that much since the city has less than half of 1 percent of the state’s total teachers. Update, Sept. 21: Pulaski County says JLARC also used the wrong data for that county.
Even with the wrong Danville figures, the report noted that overall teacher vacancy rates in Southside were declining from a year ago (even as some Southside localities saw theirs rise). The biggest increases in vacancy rates were elsewhere: “The Northern Virginia and Middle Peninsula region’s teacher vacancy rate of 5.2 percent was above the state average and substantially increased from the prior year’s vacancy rate of 2.9 percent.”
6. High vacancy rates are also quite localized.
We often see high vacancy rate counties next door to low vacancy rate counties. Bland County has the highest vacancy rate in Southwest Virginia at 8.8% Keep in mind, too, what’s often called the tyranny of small numbers. For Bland County, that’s five vacancies. Highland County also shows up with a vacancy rate that’s higher than the state average, but in tiny Highland County, that means just two vacancies.
Updated, Sept. 21: The JLARC report lists Pulaski County as having the highest rates in Southwest Virginia but the county says the report used the wrong data and Pulaski actually has one of the lowest rates in the region. We’ve updated the map below to reflect that.
7. Some places have seen teacher shortages decline.
Last year Lynchburg had the eighth highest rate in the state at 10.5%. This year it’s down to 4.4%. Roanoke’s was low last year (3.2%) and is even lower this year (1.1%). Martinsville’s has also fallen, from 9.0% to 7.6%.
8. There’s no obvious connection between school controversies and vacancy rates.
One natural question is whether Youngkin’s emphasis on “parental rights” and larger controversies over transgender policies and book selection has fueled a teacher exodus. If it has, I can’t find it in this data. Roanoke County’s school board has been roiled over whether teachers can display … rainbows. Two people have been arrested at school board meetings. One parent decried what he called “child abuse, grooming, conditioning and indoctrination by sexual predators disguised as teachers and staff at Glen Cove Elementary.”
You’d think all that would make it hard to find teachers willing to teach in Roanoke County. I don’t know if it’s been hard, but the JLARC report finds that Roanoke County has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state — just two positions, or 0.2%. That’s up from one, and 0.1%, a year ago.
Loudoun County has been the epicenter for school controversies; Youngkin recently pardoned a parent charged with disorderly conduct at a school board meeting. Loudoun’s vacancy rate is 3.7%, below the state average, although it is up from 1.1% a year ago.
Spotsylvania County made the news when one school board member suggested burning some books; 14 books were eventually removed but not set ablaze. Spotsylvania may have a problem at Chancellor High School but overall its vacancy rate has fallen — from 7.6% last year to 5.8% this year. That rate is higher than the state average but the trendline is in the right direction.
There may indeed be teachers leaving the profession because of all these controversies but, in the aggregate, the localities where vacancy rates are high and/or growing aren’t ones that have seen specific confrontations over books, bathrooms or rainbows.
9. The Roanoke Valley has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the state.
If you’re in the Roanoke Valley, these teacher shortages are mostly a problem for someone else. In Roanoke, the vacancy rate is, as we’ve seen, 1.1% and lower than last year. In Salem, it’s 0.7%. In Roanoke County, it’s 0.2%. In Botetourt County, it’s absolutely zero. Next door in Bedford County, the vacancy rate is 1.3%. Only in neighboring Franklin County does it start bumping up, to 3.3%.
The New River Valley also shows up low. The vacancy rate in Montgomery County is 1.8%, the updated numbers noted above show Pulaski County at 1.7%, the same as Radford.
10. Some localities are responding by having teachers teach subjects they’re not prepared to teach.
JLARC tells us: “Two divisions reported all their teachers were teaching in their field, while two others had only about two-thirds of their teachers teaching in their field of expertise.” It did not identify which two those are.
Whatever the reason for teachers leaving, we clearly need to fill these positions, so what can we do?
11. Hiring teachers with non-teaching backgrounds is not the solution.
This has been a popular position among some, particularly Republicans. The JLARC report wasn’t too keen on this, though. It found that “46 percent of school divisions surveyed by JLARC reported that provisionally licensed teachers are very poorly or poorly prepared to be teachers, while only 3 percent of school divisions reported poor preparation among individuals who attended traditional higher education preparation programs.” It suggested the state do more to get students into those traditional teacher-training programs. The report noted that’s not an immediate fix, but should pay dividends over time.
12. Virginia’s not keeping up with other states when it comes to teacher recruitment.
JLARC had a long list of ways in which Virginia could improve its teacher recruitment, but this one jumped out at me: “To reduce financial barriers to traditional teacher preparation programs while attracting more minority teacher candidates and candidates willing to teach in critical shortage areas, the General Assembly should appropriate more funding to the Virginia Teaching Scholarship Loan Program,” it said. That seems a sound and innocuous recommendation, right? Maybe, but consider this: Virginia is putting $708,000 a year into its teacher scholarship program, which benefits about 75 students a year, the report said. That’s not a lot compared to that annual deficit of nearly 5,500 teachers but at least it’s a start, right? However, our neighbors to the north and south are doing more — a lot more. “North Carolina appropriated $6 million in FY23 and has proposed appropriating $11 million in FY24 in state funding for teacher scholarship loans,” the report said. “Maryland appropriated $8 million in FY23 and $12 million in FY24 for teacher scholarship loans.”
Alas, like many things, this problem may take money to solve.