BISMARCK – North Dakota educational leaders began brainstorming Wednesday about ways to reverse a statewide teacher shortage that's been labeled as critical in every subject area and is worsening with enrollment growth, a wave of retirements and fewer young people entering the profession.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said the 11-member Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force was created in response to input early this spring from school administrators having difficulty filling positions.
Baesler said the Department of Public Instruction approached the state teacher licensing agency, the Education Standards and Practices Board (ESPB), about the need to find short-term solutions to fill openings for the upcoming school year and a long-term plan to "broaden the pipeline" for teachers.
Neither the DPI nor ESPB had current statistics on teacher openings Wednesday. The most recent survey by the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders found roughly 200 teacher openings as of Aug. 1, with about 65 percent of districts reporting.
Baesler said the state not only needs to find ways to encourage more young people to go into teaching and to retain current teachers but also to look at nontraditional routes to teaching. The number of students earning bachelor's degrees from educator preparation programs at state institutions has trended downward from 816 in 1994 to 660 in 2013, ESPB figures show.
"If we're going to solely rely on new teachers or high school graduates going into teaching, there aren't enough of them to meet the demand," she said.
One option likely to be explored by the task force is something similar to Minnesota's "community expert" program, which allows the Minnesota Board of Teaching to grant special permission for individuals to teach in subject areas for which they may not be fully licensed - for example, a pharmacist who may be tapped to teach chemistry.
Sherry Houdek, the DPI's director of teacher and school effectiveness, noted that Minot schools have reported a lack of applicants for Spanish teachers, yet Minot State University has college Spanish instructors who aren't K-12 certified but could potentially help fill the gap.
"We're really looking at education as a whole," she said.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a union representing roughly 7,000 active teachers, said that while the state has made big strides to boost K-12 funding in recent years, some districts still need to offer better financial packages to draw teachers toward hard-to-fill jobs.
"We believe that is the key in attracting and retaining high-quality teachers," he said.
North Dakota continues its climb out of the cellar in terms of teacher pay, rising in rank from 49th to 36th in the nation as the average salary increased from $35,441 in 2003-04 to $48,666 in 2013-14, according to the National Education Association. That's still below both the national average of $56,610 and the $54,752 average in neighboring Minnesota in 2013-14.
Paul Stremick, superintendent of the North Border School District along the U.S.-Canada border in the northeastern corner of North Dakota, said despite increasing the salary and benefits package, the remote district hasn't received a single application for its lone science teacher job in Walhalla since it was posted in early May. Two special education positions and a family and consumer science teacher slot also went unfilled last year for lack of applicants, he said.
Stremick, an ESPB member, said alternative licensing needs to be explored as a stopgap measure.
"By no means do I want to water down the teaching profession," he said. "But at the same time, having somebody is better than having nobody."
The state currently has about 10,000 teachers, Baesler said. The North Dakota Teachers' Fund for Retirement projects roughly 3,000 to 3,400 teachers will retire in the next 10 years, along with about 90 administrators. Meanwhile, K-12 public school enrollment has increased by about 10,000 in the past five years, with enrollment of about 104,000 students last fall, reflecting the state's population growth driven largely by oil and gas development.
ESPB Executive Director Janet Welk said North Dakota has become an import state for teachers, issuing 371 educator licenses to new North Dakota college graduates and 416 licenses to educators from out of state from July 1 to May 31.
"It's huge, and it's across the board," she said of the teacher shortage.
The task force will forward its recommendations to Baesler and the ESPB, some of which may end up as proposed legislation, Baesler said.