Alaska risks an exodus of educators
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of what we thought was our normal life. In addition to disruptions to our global economy, politics and health, the pandemic has significantly exacerbated a slow-boiling crisis in public education: recruiting and retaining the high-quality educators that all students deserve. School districts across the country are grappling with large-scale vacancies, mid-year retirements and resignations, and more than 30% fewer Americans are choosing education as their career. compared to 10 years ago. Which group will feel the greatest impact from this crisis of educator shortage? Our students. The # 1 impact in controlling public education on student success is having high quality educators. If school districts cannot attract and retain educators, student educational experiences suffer, affecting communities for generations. Districts across the country are realizing this and are offering salary increases and incentives such as the transfer of additional years of experience, funding for continuing education and technology allowances. Here in Alaska, we do nothing to attract and retain educators. At the local and state levels, we must inspire educators to teach – and continue to teach – in Alaska.
In August, once again, thousands of Anchorage educators, including teachers, counselors and nurses from the Anchorage Education Association, as well as key TOTEM school staff, began a most grueling year and difficult without a contract. The negotiation is at an impasse and is in mediation. The main goal of the educators has been to encourage teaching in Anchorage so that we can have the best possible educational experience for all students. Anchorage should back a contract that does just that.
Anchorage educators deserve a salary that matches the cost of teaching in Alaska. For comparison, the increase in the cost of living for Social Security in 2022 is 5.9%, and the cost of living in Alaska is significantly higher than the national average. Anchorage educators shouldn’t waste any money by continuing to teach in our great city. Anchorage educator contracts should also reflect our professional level of education, expertise and experience. More than half of Anchorage’s educators have a master’s or equivalent, and nearly half have 72 or more credit hours after the bachelor’s degree. The continuing education of Anchorage educators rivals, and arguably exceeds, many other professional fields and the majority of it takes place at our expense, including recertification every five years. Additionally, the majority of educators in Anchorage have 10 or more years of life-saving classroom experience. This is doubly important, as many educators in Anchorage will be retiring over the next decade and we must attract and retain high quality educators to fill these vacancies.
A contract that will encourage education in Anchorage must also support Anchorage’s educator of choice health insurance provider and contribute competitively. The Public Education Health Trust has some of the lowest administrative fees in the country and works tirelessly to contain costs. Educators are happy with the consistency and choice that PEHT offers in a market full of exponential increases. Any contract must honor the system that works and not only allow educators to stay with PEHT, but also support PEHT as a model for success, not move members to other unproven plans and potentially increase costs.
In addition to salary and benefits, educators in Anchorage are continually being asked to do more with less – less time. Our time spent on planning and collaborating is already far less than that of other developed countries, including those that many like to compare us to, such as Finland. In addition to a professional salary, Finnish educators have almost 50% more planning time than in Anchorage. Not to mention the planning time we get is not protected from meetings, additional assigned tasks (code for anything needed anywhere anytime) or coverage from other educators due to a supply teacher crisis ravaging our district. Educators need time to plan, assess, communicate with families, collaborate with colleagues, and work on non-teaching task hours accumulated each year. We, especially our primary educators, are drowned in initiatives and programs with very little time to prepare to implement them in the best way for all students. Educators shouldn’t be forced to leave school just to spend what is often another full day’s work just to keep their heads above water. It’s not the best for students. This leads many educators to re-evaluate their decision to teach and others to leave earlier than expected, just on the precipice of a serious shortage of educators.
At the state level, continued dedication to the disastrous Level III Teacher Defined Contribution Pension Plan, the only defined contribution plan for public school educators in the United States, has made Alaska the worst place for the retirement of educators across the country. . This created the “tourism teacher”. Tourism teachers come to Alaska and get experience and training, as well as the school district’s investment in their Level III accounts, to leave mid-career, leaving our communities and our children the disruption and costs, estimated at over $ 20 million per year.
It’s getting worse. Alaskan educators not only do not have a defined benefit pension, but are also excluded from Social Security. That’s right: in addition to what equates to a 401K and the associated risk, educators working with students right now will have no social security in retirement and won’t even have the choice to contribute. . In fact, those who have already contributed will see their benefits drastically reduced because of the windfall elimination provision, an archaic law intended to prevent the “double-check” that is now “doubling” the retirement of Alaskan educators. If Alaska truly wants the highest quality educators in front of our greatest resource, our students, we must pass Bill 220, introduced by Rep. Grier Hopkins, which would allow a choice of retirement, including a return to a defined benefit plan. . This bill would not only keep educators in Alaska, it incurs no additional cost to the state and provides for risk sharing in the event of unfunded liabilities. This will save millions due to decreased teacher turnover and attract and retain high quality educators for Alaska students. As states across the country face a growing shortage of educators, there will be no reason to stay in Alaska as other states offer more competitive pension plans. Almost 65% of Alaskan educators are Level III educators, and it’s an impending exodus that would have a big impact on our students, a double effect as Level II educators retire.
Day after day in our schools, both before and during these trying times, educators and staff have repeatedly shown that their top priority is the youth of Alaska. We do more with less. We work for lower salaries than our professional peers with comparable education and experience. We fight every day to make sure students have consistency in our classrooms as we all navigate life during a pandemic. We do everything that is asked of us and more because we care deeply about our students and our communities. They are and always have been our top priority. But for us to continue to put students first, Anchorage educators should come first with a contract that respects our education and expertise, a salary and benefits that follow the cost of living, and a pension. that inspires us to teach, and stay, in Alaska.
Ben walker is a National Council certified teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years of classroom experience; He is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year.
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