Sen. Susan Collins

According to a story in the Sun Journal (Aug. 6), the school department in Maine’s second-largest city had dozens of job openings with the start of a new school year just days away. The situation highlights the growing problem of a shortage of education professionals in schools across the nation.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that shortages of teachers, principals, educational technicians and substitute teachers are occurring in every state, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns. A leading cause of these shortages is simply that fewer and fewer college students are choosing to pursue degrees in education. A Learning Policy Institute study in 2016 found that teacher education enrollment dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014.

Teacher shortages are most acute in special education and in such subject areas as science, mathematics, world languages and career and technical education — fields that are vital for U.S. economic success.

To help address those shortages, I have joined with my colleague on the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, to introduce the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act. Our bipartisan bill is supported by more than a dozen educational organizations, including the Maine Principals’ Association.

Teacher and principal shortages at schools across the country impede our students’ ability to reach their full potential. Research shows that better prepared teachers stay longer in the profession and are more effective in improving student achievement.

The PREP Act would increase the availability of high-quality teacher and leader training programs and extend federal support for recruiting well-prepared educators for areas affected by teacher shortages. Specifically, it would expand the definition of high-need districts to include those with a large number of unfilled positions, and it would encourage school districts to partner with local community colleges and universities to ensure they are educating future teachers in areas where there are shortages. States would identify areas of teacher or school leader shortages by subject across public schools and use that data to target their efforts. It would also prioritize effective residency programs, which allow prospective educators to embed in a classroom for a year.

In addition to attracting new educators to the profession, it is essential that we support those already in the field. I have visited more than 200 schools in Maine, and everywhere I go I find teachers who sacrifice their own money to ensure that our nation’s children have the resources they need to receive a good, quality education. It is truly remarkable how often that teachers in Maine and throughout this country take money out of their own pockets to purchase classroom supplies for our children. In 2002, I authored the law that first created a $250 tax credit for these out-of-pocket expenditures and fought successfully to make that tax relief permanent as part of the 2017 tax reform bill.

Federal measures and local initiatives combine to strengthen our education work force. Although staff shortages are increasingly common at the beginning of a new school year, I commend Superintendent Todd Finn and the people of Lewiston for taking proactive steps to continue building a positive school culture to recruit, attract and retain the best educators for their community.

Whether they are in cities such as Lewiston or in small towns in rural parts of our state, every school in Maine has something very important in common: dedicated teachers, administrators and staff working to provide their students with the best possible education and to help them realize their full potential.

To develop the next generation of leaders, we must support the education professionals of today. By encouraging more people to enter the teaching profession, the PREP Act would help ensure that there are enough teachers and principals with the right skills and tools to prepare students for the future.

Susan Collins is the senior senator representing Maine in the U.S. Senate.

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