Tuition assistance, work-life balance improvements, and residency requirement waivers are recommended as the state struggles to find educators. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)
New Jersey’s teacher shortage persisted into the 2022-2023 school year, but the degree of the shortfall remains unclear, as does its impact on classroom offerings statewide.
The shortfall is longstanding and driven in part by sharp declines in the number of teacher candidates since the Great Recession and by reductions in the number of college students completing teacher preparation courses or obtaining teaching degrees.
“When you have those kind of cutbacks in supply, it’s going to necessarily create problems,” said Mark Weber, special analyst for education policy at liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
The size of the state’s shortage remains unclear despite a recent law requiring the Department of Education and a state data system to issue annual reports on teacher staffing.
Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) said they had not seen the reports, and it’s unclear whether they were completed and transmitted to lawmakers before a March 1 deadline. Gopal chairs the chamber’s education committee.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not provide comment. Officials from the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System did not return requests for comment.
Historically, schools have had the most trouble finding special education and science teachers, and bilingual teachers who can aid students who are not native English speakers.
Ruiz suggested lawmakers should temporarily lift a residency requirement imposed on New Jersey teachers in a bid to increase staffing in the short run while allowing time for other changes, like those seeking to draw more students into education, to take effect.
“If there are two people that are going for the position and they’re equal in their value and their work and demonstrating leadership, then New Jersey goes first,” Ruiz said. “But evidently, we do not have enough New Jerseyans to fill this space.”
Ruiz and Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) are sponsoring a bill that would waive the residency requirement for three years and require the Department of Education to issue a report on how the waiver affected school staffing. The bill last moved in May 2022 and has yet to pass through an Assembly committee.
Some other possible solutions come from a February report issued by the gubernatorial task force on teacher shortages Gov. Phil Murphy convened in December.
Among other things, the task force recommended increased mentorship and professional development for new teachers, limits on after-hours work common in the industry, and financial incentives like tuition reimbursement or stipends to defray the cost of a teaching degree.
Gopal said the state should explore tuition assistance for those studying to be teachers.
The task force also recommended raising teacher pay, exploring ways to speed up teacher certifications, and reducing the amount of administrative paperwork completed by educators.
“In short, we need to make sure New Jersey teachers and other school employees can afford to stay in the profession, and we need to make sure they are able to focus on the important work that drew them to a career in education in the first place,” said Steve Baker, communications director for teachers union the New Jersey Education Association.
Concerns over teacher pay have redoubled amid post-pandemic inflation and a staffing crunch that have raised wages across a variety of sectors. Most teacher salaries are negotiated as part of collective bargaining agreements and will not automatically correspond to wage increases elsewhere.
“You need to pay them competitive wages, and that starts with making sure school districts have enough resources to pay those wages, not in terms of competing against each other but competing against the broader labor market,” Weber said.
That’s especially important as other white-collar jobs make concessions on work-from-home policies unavailable to educators, Weber said.
The state is already taking action on some of the recommendations issued by the task force. Murphy proposed setting aside $10 million to increase student teacher stipends in his annual spending plan, which also includes a proposal to waive teacher certification fees during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The state has taken other steps to shore up staffing in recent years, including legislation that waived certain examination requirements for those seeking teaching certificates and a bill that allowed schools to rehire retired educators under certain circumstances.
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