Partisan Explanations for Teacher Shortage Are Inadequate

Governor Glenn Youngkin

by James A. Bacon

Governor Glenn Youngkin and state senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, have given WLJA-TV alternative explanations for Virginia’s teacher shortage. Youngkin’s is partisan and incomplete, and Surovell’s is partisan and disconnected from reality.

In an interview with the Washington television station, Youngkin blamed Democrats for holding up negotiations on the biennial budget that will provide a pay boost for teachers. “I did feel that Senate Democrats really dragged their feet unnecessarily,” he said. “And, yes, we signed the budget in June, but it included a 10% raise for teachers over the next two years along with bonuses, and it would have been really nice for the recruiting to be able to start much earlier for these spots with some certainty.”

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon.

Surovell took issue with Youngkin’s spin on the budget. Although the state budget wasn’t signed into law until this summer, says WLJA in summarizing his argument, both political parties in Richmond were in favor of teacher raises. The raises never were an issue in the negotiations. School boards have known that teachers could expect an 8-10% raise since February.

That argument seems persuasive to me. But Surovell undercut himself with this ludicrous claim: “Teachers are leaving because conservatives like the governor are making it unpleasant to be a teacher today by micromanaging how they should teach and what they can say in the classroom.”

That’s the teachers’ union explanation for what ails the profession— what Jim Sherlock calls the “mean parents” theory — but I have seen no evidence to back it up. As Sherlock has highlighted, teacher surveys pre-dating the current Woke Wars in Virginia’s public schools indicated that poor working conditions were the main driver of teacher discontent. Dissatisfaction tends to be worst in high-poverty schools where classroom discipline and teacher safety are most likely to be issues, although parental indifference and disrespect (not connected to politics), cell phones, and micro-management by administrators (not parents) also are contributing factors.

The disastrous handling of the COVID epidemic made matters worse. When students returned to in-school teaching, teachers were given the extra task of helping students make up lost ground academically, even as they dealt with the fallout of lost social maturity (or in the verbiage of educrats, lost “social-emotional learning.”) These calamitous conditions coincided with a general labor shortage that gave teachers better employment options than they’ve enjoyed in decades. Uncompetitive compensation is likely a factor in some teachers’ decisions to bail out, but insufficient pay has been a chronic issue for teachers and cannot explain the surge in resignations in the past year or two.

Youngkin errs, in my view, by thinking that plummeting teacher morale can be addressed with a 10% pay raises that, as big as it sounds, lags inflation. But if the Governor was being partisan in blaming Democrats for the budget hold-up, Surovell was being hyper-partisan. Parents have been politically active in relatively few localities — most notably in Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach. But they have been inert in urban school districts like Richmond where teacher shortfalls are the most acute. 

Surovell’s senatorial district extends to Prince William County, which hired 900 new people in instructional positions for the new school year but still has 318 openings just as school is about to open, as reported by WTOP News.

The school system also faces a shortage of bus drivers. Are conservatives micro-managing how bus drivers do their jobs? I don’t think so.

I have not followed Prince William school politics closely, but a Google search of “prince william school controversies” does reveal a flap over a sexually explicit book, “The House of Spirits.” That Washington Post article appears No. 1 in the search results. But, oh… the story was dated 1998.

The most recent controversy appearing in the Google results involved the School Board’s discussion of its first “equity statement” in 2021, and parental unhappiness over a school board rule limiting public comment. The year before, the PWC school superintendent was accused of engaging in inappropriate conversations with students on social media. How debates involving the school board and superintendent might constitute micro-managing of teachers remains a mystery.

Everyone needs to get real about what’s happening in our schools. Viewing the issues through partisan lenses obscures the issues and, in doing so, ensures that the problem is never fixed.