July 11, 2003

Despite budget woes, California still needs teachers

By Marcello Ballvé

For more than two years, California’s ethnic media ran ads and launched editorial initiatives with one overriding message: California faces a massive teacher shortage.

The aim of the multi-million dollar public awareness campaign was to promote teaching as a career, particularly among the diverse ethnic communities that now comprise California’s new majority.

Today, almost every school district in California is laying off teachers.

So what happened to the shortage?

Kris Marubayashi is co-director of cal-teach, the state-funded agency that funded the campaign as part of its mandate to aid people considering teaching as a career. Marubayashi says that not only has the shortage not disappeared, in some parts of the state, and in certain subject areas, there is still a serious need for teachers.

“This is the crux of the issue – what is happening with the budget is not directly related to our need for teachers,” Marubayashi says.

Three factors drove the teacher shortage and they are still in force, Marubyashi explains. Those three factors – identified by a state task force in 1996 – are an aging teacher corps, a booming student population and class-size reductions designed to increase the ratio of teachers to students.

Now, a growing budget crisis after years of flush times in Sacramento has created a difficult situation for schools, and many were forced to let teachers go. The news of teacher layoffs understandably is “sowing a lot of confusion and concern amongst teachers and the general public,” says Marubayashi.

But it’s important to understand that many layoffs are precautionary measures taken by school officials, who are left in limbo as to what resources they will have for the next school year while state legislators wrangle over the budget. Many of the teachers receiving pink slips this spring will be rehired as school districts receive their budgets and re-examine staff needs.

Marubayashi worries that for the general public, the news of teacher layoffs will fuel the perception that California simply does not need more teachers. That perception is wrong, and dangerous for the long-term health of California’s schools, she said. Schools still need teachers who are passionate about serving their communities.

“We could actually be in a much worse situation years down the road,” Marubayashi says. “Because if the word out there right now is ‘we don’t need teachers’ and that discourages a large percentage of people who would have considered teaching, then when those older teachers retire, and we don’t have their replacements in the pathway, we’re going to face a greater shortage, a greater crisis in the teaching profession.”

The reality is that even as many districts are now downsizing teaching personnel because of budget constraints, others are actually hiring. Marubayashi points out that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state, is hiring “across the spectrum.” Other areas, such as Modesto and the Inland Empire, are looking for teachers as they continue to experience population growth.

Many school districts are interested in interviewing candidates who teach science, mathematics, and special education, areas in which there is a perennial scarcity of qualified candidates, she said. Teachers with credentials in these fields will be better able to “weather these storms,” says Marubayashi.

Also, because of the diversity of California’s population –which is projected to grow so that in less than twenty years two-thirds of Californians will be of ethnic backgrounds – recruiters also appreciate the cultural and language skills that teachers bring to the classroom.

Candidates who are flexible in terms of where in California they will teach, and are credentialed in the high-need subject areas, can expect to find opportunities, regardless of how cash-strapped the state’s treasury is, according to Marubayashi. And even in lean times, bilingual teachers have an advantage.

“Being bilingual is something that you put on the plus side, that’s something you’re bringing to the table, similar to bringing your science major, your math major, your special education credential – it has that kind of weight,” she says. “I think that’s still really important to emphasize. You’re bicultural, bilingual, that’s an asset.”

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