LILLEY: New Jersey, Listen Up–This Is Why We Have a Teacher Shortage

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New Jersey school administrators sound the alarm about teacher shortages. The U.S. Department of Education says New Jersey has a shortage of teachers in math, science, and other areas. At a recent hearing in Trenton on the subject, one legislator called the situation a “crisis.

Such shortages will mean that class sizes will be larger, some teachers will lack subject matter expertise, and the overall quality of instruction may be impaired.

The proximate cause of the current teacher shortage is pandemic-driven early retirements, but these have only exacerbated a steep decline in the number of teacher candidates since 2010-11. The problem pre-dates the pandemic.

New Jersey lawmakers have taken some steps to address the current shortage but the decline in teacher candidates is a long-term trend and they must consider steps to reverse it as well.

In our most recent report, the Sunlight Policy Center looks at the issue from a young college graduate’s perspective. We pose a basic question: does employment in New Jersey’s current public school system present an appealing prospect for today’s college graduates?

Today’s generation of college graduates is different from previous generations. They seek mobility rather than stability and “career ladders,” and change jobs more frequently.

But in New Jersey, new teachers are forced into an antiquated, union-dominated bureaucracy and an inflexible employment system that promotes stability and privileges seniority, not mobility and flexibility.

Here’s what a recent college graduate can expect from becoming a teacher in New Jersey:

  • On day one of their new jobs, new teachers are effectively forced to join the New Jersey Education Association and have their highest-in-the-nation dues withheld from every paycheck for the rest of their teaching careers.
  • For the average new teacher with $37,000 in after-tax income, $1,470 in dues constitutes a 4% pay cut right off the top. To make matters worse, these dues fund rich compensation for the NJEA leadership and millions in political spending every year – almost exclusively for Democrats – regardless of whether the dues-payers are non-political or Republicans. These new teachers have no say in the matter.
  • Also on day one, new teachers are forced to join a state pension system that is highly unfavorable to younger teachers. Pensions take another 7% of their salaries. Yet almost half of the new teachers will leave teaching before they vest and will end up subsidizing older, career teachers. Moreover, teachers’ pensions are not portable and ill-suited to today’s younger workers who value mobility.
  • New teachers are then forced to join a rigid employment system where they are locked into the school district that hired them. If a teacher chooses to move to a new teaching job in a different district, she will generally lose her tenure and seniority rights, and possibly her pay status. Teachers are thus incentivized to stay in one place for their entire careers. Once again, mobility is discouraged.
  • These new teachers are also locked into a monolithic pay system with uniform, fixed pay increases that reward seniority, not teaching skill or merit. Significant wage gains come at the end of a long career, not before. In the case of layoffs, newer, younger teachers will be the first to go. Again, the system benefits older, career teachers.

The hard truth is that New Jersey’s public school system disfavors new and younger teachers.

If New Jersey needs more new teachers, it must adopt policies to encourage them to join the teaching profession. But those policies must address the values and interests of today’s college graduates. The nature of employment in New Jersey’s public school system has not changed very much over the last 50 years, but the nature of our younger generations most certainly has.

Our current employment system is not young-teacher-friendly. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves how the system can be improved to make the teaching profession more appealing to today’s young college graduates?

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