U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine visited Stafford County on Friday morning to discuss the nationwide teacher shortage and ways to increase “respect for the profession.”

In a roundtable discussion at Stafford Middle School, the Democratic senator from Virginia heard ideas for addressing the shortage from Stafford teachers, administrators, school board members and students, as well as representatives from county government, Germanna Community College and the University of Mary Washington.

Kaine, who serves on the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions—or HELP—has introduced two bills in the past few months that seek to address the shortage.

In March, Kaine, and co-sponsor Susan Collins, R–Maine, introduced the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals Act. The bill would, among other things, expand the definition of “high-need” school districts to include those with severe teacher shortages, encourage school districts to create partnerships with local community and four-year colleges and expand access to teacher residency programs.

It would also support teacher preparation programs at minority-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities to encourage diversity in the teaching profession.

This week, Kaine and co-sponsor John Tester, D–Montana, introduced the Rural Educator Support and Training Act, which would provide financial incentives, including loan forgiveness, to teachers in rural divisions.

Many of Virginia’s school divisions with the highest percentages of vacant teacher positions are in rural areas, such as Caroline County, which has a vacancy rate of 5.4 percent—the sixth highest in the state—according to Virginia Department of Education statistics from 2016–17.

Kaine said Friday he hopes to add the two bills to the Higher Education Act being reauthorized by the HELP committee.

“We have a good chance of getting these passed,” Kaine said.

He asked those gathered at Stafford Middle for ideas that could strengthen any of the bills’ ability to fight the teacher shortage.

“It’s been 10 years since the last Higher Education Act was reauthorized,” he said. “So we better do a good job.”

For many present, the answer is higher pay.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the idea that we have to pay for what we value,” said Stafford School Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah Chase. “If we don’t pay enough, then we get what we pay for.”

Brooke Point High School senior Maddy Powell participated in the Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow program, which provides students interested in a teaching career with coursework and an internship designed to let them experience the profession.

“The first thing I hear from my peers when I tell them I want to be a teacher is, ‘You’re not going to make any money,’ ” Powell said, adding that the potential student loan debt is “crippling.”

Kaine said the salary issue is important. Though teacher pay isn’t part of federal government policy, he said he is “working on a longer-term issue that could affect teacher salaries.”

It involves ensuring that the federal government pay 40 percent of the cost of educating a child with disabilities, which it promised to do under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In reality, the federal government pays less than half of that amount, according to the National Council on Disability.

“Having the government pay the full 40 percent would free up dollars for school divisions that could go towards teacher salaries,” Kaine said.

Other roundtable participants said teachers have too many burdens placed on them because of state and federal mandates.

“Retention is more and more of a challenge because of the demands placed on our teachers,” School Board Chairwoman Patricia Healy said. “And it seems it’s getting harder.”

School Board member Pamela Yeung said teachers today are expected to be “psychologists, mothers, friends, social workers and protectors of lives” in addition to being teachers.

Other ideas discussed included hiring teachers from overseas to increase diversity—a tactic used successfully by hospitals to address the nurse shortage—boosting career-switch programs for teachers entering the profession from other careers, dual-enrollment programs for high school students to earn college credit while still in school, and mentorship programs to help teachers through their first years.

Christian Peabody, president of the Stafford Education Association, said what is needed is “a cultural shift in the perception of this profession.”

“[SEA] is about uplifting professional dignity,” he said, “because there is no more important public service.”

Stafford schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said he believes that solutions to the teacher shortage will come from the local community.

“Your presence here has brought us together,” he said to Kaine. “You being here gets people excited to work for change.”

In an interview after the roundtable discussion, Kaine said he “could have had this discussion anywhere in Virginia, but it wouldn’t be a higher quality discussion.”

He said his main takeaways from the discussion are the importance of providing financial incentives for teachers to come into the profession and supporting creative local programs such as Teach for Tomorrow for high school students and partnerships between community colleges and four-year universities.

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Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele

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