Dueling reviews look at why Indiana has a teacher shortage

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana school districts are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, prompting two politically divergent groups to look for the reasons why.

State schools’ Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, has launched a 49-member commission to find ways to attract more educators. She’ll likely use the commission’s conclusions to develop legislation for lawmakers to consider when the Legislature convenes next January.

Meanwhile, two powerful GOP lawmakers on education matters, state Rep. Robert Behning and state Sen. Dennis Kruse, have pledged to hold an October meeting exploring why fewer teachers are being licensed, the Indianapolis Star reported.

The two groups could come to vastly different conclusions as to why Indiana has seen an 18 percent drop over the last five years in the number of initial teaching licenses being issued.

State Department of Education statistics show teacher retention varies, with recent figures showing a statewide retention rate of about 81 percent. But some areas are worse off, including Indianapolis Public Schools, which retains 61 percent.

Some Democrats say a host of new Republican-backed “reform” measures are the reason teachers are quitting the profession. But the party is split, with some favoring charter schools and private-school voucher programs backed by the GOP, saying students benefit from accountability requirements which can pin a portion of teacher pay to their students’ performance. Teachers’ unions traditionally oppose such a move.

The short supply of teachers isn’t unique to Indiana — it’s happening in states that have and haven’t instituted accountability measures.

“I think that the teacher shortage is a direct reflection of missteps in education policy the state has taken,” said Marvin Lynn, dean of the School of Education at Indiana University-South Bend.

Yet it’s unclear whether lawmakers will have appetite to address the teacher shortage. The upcoming legislative session will be held in a non-budget year, when lawmakers are historically hesitant to reopen the state’s spending plan. Complicating matters more, Gov. Mike Pence has hinted that his focus might be on the state’s crumbling roadways.

Still, Behning said he’s hopeful for consensus on several initiatives, including a loan forgiveness program for teachers entering science, technology, engineering and math fields. Kruse expects one idea that will come up in the Legislature is offering teachers more pay, though he noted that lawmakers have already increased education spending.

The two-year state budget, which began in July, contains $464 million in new spending for education.

Behning also says success of the legislative study rides on how much information Ritz is willing to share.

“When we have contacted the department, we’ve been told they have very little data they can give us,” Behning said of the commission.

Ritz, who has clashed with Pence and Republicans over education topics, is predicting a debate on the horizon.

“I think there is bipartisan interest in the topic,” she said. “I think there is going to be a robust conversation about it this coming session.”

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