Opinion: The solution to the education talent shortage must be local
As the school year begins, the news is full of stories about public education staff shortages. The press quickly identified the problem. Lack of respect and fair compensation, as well as stressful working conditions keep people out of perhaps the most important jobs in our economy. Strong public schools need real investment in their employees. It’s time to admit something.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) employees perform the basic work necessary to keep our county welcoming, safe, healthy and thriving. They develop children’s skills and prepare them for college and careers. They build community in schools and classrooms and teach children how to successfully navigate social relationships. They inspire their students to try to reach their potential as future citizens.
For decades, MCPS’ excellence has made the area a major draw for families and businesses. Our school consistently ranks among the best in the nation.
But that success came with long-standing challenges. Staff are overloaded with ever-increasing demands to perform additional duties. Standardized tests and standardized curricula are increasingly robbing us of the joy of teaching and learning. Meanwhile, educators, support personnel, and administrators have dealt with a lack of resources to meet the growing needs of students.
All of these issues are exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, increased school violence, and devastating political rhetoric.
As a result, a record number of Montgomery County Public Schools employees retired or resigned by the end of the June school year. In addition to the usual retirements and transfers, I saw more and more dedicated people leaving the school system altogether in search of better wages and working conditions. Lower than we remember.
Meanwhile, education schools across the country are seeing a drastic drop in enrollment, which is depleting the pipeline of new educators. Competition for skilled teachers, support staff, and administrators is fierce among local school systems.
While those on the front lines of education are struggling to do their jobs during this crisis, the children of our county are the ones who are suffering the most.
Many tend to say that labor shortages are a nationwide problem and that the solutions are beyond our control. Let me be clear: there is no national solution to the public education shortage. Schools are funded overwhelmingly from local taxes and the school system is largely self-run. Those of us in Montgomery County should be willing to pay the costs of hiring highly skilled and dedicated professionals to undertake the demanding task of educating our children. New funding is coming from the state through the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, but the law requires counties to do the same.
Solutions must also come from the school board. This year, all three of her negotiating departments—teacher, support professional, and administrator—will be negotiating contracts with his MCPS. In addition to seeking competitive wages and benefits that attract and retain qualified employees, unions will seek improved working conditions.
Staff need a reasonable workload that allows them to focus on doing the best they can for the children they serve without sacrificing their own families or compromising their own physical and mental health. . The constant blizzard of new initiatives and added responsibilities must stop. Those who work directly with children should exercise greater professional respect for their decisions about when, how and what to teach. Overtesting and constant pressure to produce data must give way to a child-centered approach to academic performance. Professional growth opportunities must be expanded and tailored to individual needs and interests. We need to improve staff ratios for all students, not just those with special services. Staffing levels should also reflect the reality of what is required to keep the building clean, safe and functional.
Ultimately, what we do as a county to support MCPS employees shows how much we care about our children. The employee’s working conditions are the student’s learning conditions. An investment in your child’s education is an investment in Montgomery County’s reputation and future.
Pia Morrison is President of the SEIU Local 500, Christine Handy is President of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals, and Jennifer Martin is President of the Montgomery County Education Association.
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