BOHANON & STYRING: Is there a teacher shortage? It's not that simple

October 3, 2015

Economic AnalysisDoes Indiana face a shortage of schoolteachers? You’d certainly think so from news stories showing an 18-percent decline in new teacher licenses issued over the past five years. School superintendents report difficulty in hiring math, science and special-ed teachers.

State Education Superintendent Glenda Ritz has appointed a 49-member blue ribbon commission to study the matter. House and Senate Education Committee chairs Bob Behning and Dennis Kruse plan an Oct. 19 meeting to discuss the issue.

But before we all leap on this bandwagon, consider an alternative analysis.

If any economist were told how salaries are determined in the public schools, she would predict shortages in some areas and surpluses in others. The standard union contract bases pay on years of service and degree achieved independent of the field of expertise. A talented calculus teacher might have no more “intrinsic” worth than the first grade teacher, but the math teacher has more alternatives. Pay them the same and North Community Schools might well have trouble finding a calculus teacher.

Indeed, anecdotes of math and science teachers being scarce abound every year. If it were decreed that all new cars must sell for $60,000, there’d be a shortage of Ferraris and a surplus of Chevys.

Nor is a decline in future teachers in the pipeline necessarily a harbinger of a future overall shortage. There are also plenty of ed school graduates unable to find teaching jobs. It is possible we have been churning out “too many” credentialed teachers.

Teacher unions always seek reasons to increase teacher pay: After all, that’s their job. It is also no secret they oppose school choice. In one respect, however, they have a point. One of the “perks” of public-school teaching has always been job security. Survive the first few years until granted tenure, and you have a job for life.

With the rise of charter and voucher schools, fewer life-secure jobs are available. This is true if for no other reason than these alternative public schools are allowed to fail. Tenure guarantees mean little if the school ceases to exist.

So if alternative public schools rise in importance, we would expect to see upward pressure on teacher salaries. However, given the small fraction of the K-12 student population currently in alternative public schools, we think this impact is likely muted for now.

So let’s be careful, guarded and realistic in our response to the “teacher shortage.”•


Bohanon is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Styring is an economist and independent researcher. Both also blog at INforefront.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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