Here are a few actions California legislators can take to give school districts a better chance of filling vacant positions.
By Nick Melvoin, Special to CalMatters
Nick Melvoin is vice president of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Twelve years ago, budget cuts forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to lay off thousands of employees, myself included. My students in Watts were in just one of the many classrooms, disproportionately at our highest need school communities, left without a permanent teacher.
Fast forward to this year, and the district is facing a similar staffing shortage – with one major difference – money.
If only slashed budgets were to blame, then logic should follow that an unprecedented infusion of education relief funding would provide every school community with as many teachers, nurses, counselors and support staff as students need this year. Yet, now as an elected member of the school board, our efforts to put more caring adults in schools during this period of recovery are buoyed by billions of dollars in funding but still stymied by the ensuing labor shortage.
Three months into this school year, a staggering 10,897 vacancies in the school district remain unfilled – nearly 16% of our budgeted workforce. This means a rotating door of substitute teachers. School communities are budgeting for multiple mental health support positions and in some cases, not being able to hire even one. We’ve had to suspend our most promising literacy intervention program to date, due to understaffing.
The district has doubled down on our recruiting efforts. We’ve increased hiring incentives and stipends, especially for positions at our highest need schools, and streamlined human resource processes to get candidates into schools as quickly as possible. But it’s not enough.
On the surface, our hiring crisis may sound familiar to the workforce shortage the rest of the country is facing. And in some ways, it is. All employers need to think differently about hiring in a world where people are thinking differently about their roles as workers.
But school districts don’t have the same flexibility as the private sector. While the state has approved some waivers to streamline the process during the pandemic, there are a few simple actions legislators can take to give school districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District a better chance of filling vacant positions, both now and in the long term.
We need to remove barriers for aspiring educators. Currently, the credentialing process for a new teacher can take up to five years and cost thousands – and that’s just to get your foot in the door. It should be easier for the next generation of educators to get the training and licensing needed to get them into our classrooms. And while there are understandable qualifications that our school staff must meet, we need more flexibility to allow student teachers and teaching assistants a temporary reprieve from extraneous bureaucratic hurdles.
We can also do more to fill the gaps in enrichment programs. For every school without a full-time arts or music teacher, there is a professional artist, musician, singer, actor,and so on, willing to lend their expertise to the students in their local public school – especially in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world. A recent California law restricted the ability of some public schools to hire industry experts to teach electives. Instead of further limiting this kind of innovative solution, the state should look at expanding waivers for every public school to have the same opportunity for enrichment programs.
And while the Los Angeles Unified School District continues efforts to build affordable housing for our employees, the cost of living remains a barrier for many California residents working in education. Compounding the crisis is that more than 600 of our educators are teaching in our virtual program. Given the lower cost of living and competitive salaries, we should be able to recruit from outside the city – or even outside the state – for these remote positions, so we can return our local teachers to classrooms.
The good news is, the past year and a half has given us a glimpse of what governments can accomplish in times of crisis. The Los Angeles Unified School District was able to provide more than 100 million meals to kids and families, connect every student with a digital device and hotspot, and partner with public health agencies to expand testing and vaccine access. Now, it’s time to apply the same innovative attitude to the labor shortage crisis – to get current students what they need for the future, and set school districts up to meet the future needs of students.