Alaska has a teacher retention problem. The state is willing to pay someone to help solve it.
This story originally appeared on KTOO Public Media and is republished here with permission.
The state’s education department calls the shortage of teachers in Alaska an emergency problem and says the pandemic is only making things worse. He’s willing to pay up to $ 300,000 to find a way to attract – and keep – more teachers in the state.
Teachers and the union support the movement, but they say the # 1 reason they’re leaving is pretty obvious.
James Harris is the 2017 Alaska Teacher of the Year, but he no longer lives or teaches in Alaska.
He took his skills and his family to Washington State a few years ago. There were a lot of reasons, he said, but the most important is retirement.
“Unfortunately, the retirement system in Alaska was set up in such a way that there was absolutely no way for me to retire with any dignity,” he said.
[Anchorage teachers rally as contract negotiations continue with school district]
Harris began teaching in Alaska in 2006, the first year after the state legislature cut teacher pensions known as “defined benefits.” Alaska is the only state in the union that does not offer teachers a pension or Social Security benefits.
Teacher turnover has exceeded 20% over the past decade. This places Harris among the five teachers who leave each year.
He said he hoped state leaders would provide funding for education and educators, but ultimately decided he couldn’t wait any longer.
Corrine Marks teaches high school English in Juneau and trains future teachers at the University of Southeast Alaska. She also believes the loss of defined benefits is the reason so many teachers leave the state.
She has about 30 people in the program right now. Alaska teachers are more likely to stay here, but she still sees a turnover.
“I’ve had more teachers coming and going right here in Juneau, which is a relatively easy place to stay, isn’t it? Because they have nothing to hold them here, ”she said.
Marks plans to retire here, so she can collect her pension.
[OPINION FROM 2019: Award-winning Alaska educators ask, why teach in this state?]
New teachers receive retirement benefits in Alaska; they are just not pensions. They usually come in the form of contributions to a retirement account. After teaching for five years, teachers in Alaska can take these retirement accounts with them if they leave the state.
Union leaders say this leads to “teacher tourism,” where out-of-state teachers have a five-year adventure in Alaska, then take their experience home for the rest of their careers – after that. Alaska has invested in their training.
“I have been working on the pension issue since the state legislature first ruined it in 2005,” said State Senator Jesse Kiehl.
He says the abolition of the pension was a mistake which wastes the state’s money and talent. One study estimates that Alaska spends $ 20 million annually on teacher turnover.
He supports the state’s efforts and says the legislature bears some of the blame for the turnover. It is up to them to fund education, but they have not increased the funding for over five years. This emphasizes the whole system.
Kiehl introduced a bill this year that allows teachers and other public servants who lost a pension in 2006 to earn one again. Not big, he says, but it’s an incentive to keep families in Alaska.
“By abolishing the pension, we have created a system where the rational economic choice (for a) teacher with five years of experience is to leave,” he said.
“Is this really the system we want? “
So far, this is the system chosen by Alaska. But this year, the Education Department is investing in someone to guide the state toward a solution to the larger problem of attracting and retaining teachers.
“This is not a problem we can solve on our own,” said Michael Johnson, commissioner for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. “So the ministry cannot solve it. Not a single entity can solve it, not a district, not the legislature, not the governor. We all have to work together.
He agrees that pensions and wages are among the biggest issues, but says there is more of a challenge to education in Alaska. Research confirms this. A task force identified six aspects the state should address to attract and continue to teach talent here, things like working conditions and leadership development.
“The bottom line for me is we take this report, we take this word from the task force, and then we do something,” Johnson said.
Applications for the post closed on October 15. The state declined to say how many candidates submitted a proposal. The state plans to issue a contract by November 1.