As Minnesota's teaching ranks plummet, rural schools near crisis

Brett Ryder

Brett Ryder

When students file in at the sound of the school bell in Chokio, Minnesota, they have no idea how much their teachers and administrators are trying to hold things together. 

The Chokio-Alberta School District, nestled in the agricultural belt 50 miles east of the South Dakota border, serves two rural communities with a combined population of just under 500. The district has about 150 students.

This past year, when Superintendent David Baukol hired Shaun McNally to teach 7th-12th grade science, he felt relief. A teacher shortage has left districts across the state scrambling to fill positions in math, science, technology, and special education, especially in rural areas.

But with only one science teacher for a combined middle-high school of 73 students, Baukol doesn’t know what he will do if McNally ever leaves. He was the only person to apply when the job was posted last year, which doesn’t breed confidence in anyone else coming along soon.

“We’re just barely holding on by a thread,” says Baukol. “If we had not had this science teacher apply, we would have been in dire straits. What would we have done without a science department?”

Joe Brown, superintendent of the Fairmont school district, sees the same ominous skies. Located along the Iowa border, Fairmont perhaps qualifies as a metropolis for rural Minnesota, with a population of just over 10,000.

Ten years ago, when an elementary teaching position would open in the district, at least 100 applications would arrive.

Two years ago, when three elementary teaching posts opened, only five people applied.

Last year, when a position in the fifth grade became vacant, not a single teacher showed interest. Brown had to recruit one from another district, plying her with higher pay and adjusted benefits to make Fairmont enticing.

The shortage promises to one day push rural districts to the edge of survival, fears Alan Niemann, superintendent of the tiny Ashby public school district in western Minnesota. “If we were not able to find quality teachers in all of the subject areas, it would be a challenge for us to stay viable.”

No Respect

The beginning of the profession’s decline is generally pinpointed to 1983, the year the Reagan administration released “A Nation at Risk,” a report asserting that America’s public education system was failing.

Until then, teachers were largely viewed as wholesome servants, in the company of nurses, doctors, and firefighters. But the report seemed to show that teachers shined no more. Japan, an emerging economic power of the time, was sailing past us in math and science, a threat to our sense of global supremacy.

So commenced a three-decade rampage of new laws, new tests, impressive new mountains of rules and regulations. Some of it worked. Most of it didn’t.

And who could be to blame? Teachers, of course.

The vilification escalated with the passing years. The idea of the wholesome servant was out. In was a reputation of lazy obstructionist. Teachers came to be viewed through the same lens of scorn as congressmen and DMV clerks. This was no one’s dream job.

During her 34 years in education, Sherri Broderius has watched respect for the field drop to new lows every year. The superintendent of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City schools sees kids “growing up all their life hearing that whenever something goes wrong, it’s that damn school’s rules, it’s those damn teachers, it’s the principals.”

Adds Gwen Carman, superintendent of the Carlton schools: “The whole profession of teaching is not as highly regarded as it used to be. I think it is extremely unfortunate that teachers have to experience so much criticism when it’s a profession that is so fundamentally important.”

What the critics often fail to acknowledge are the economic and other forces that have changed the profession.

By the time Reagan released his report, America’s divorce rate was on the ascent, while working people’s wages would see a 35-year stagnation. It amounted to a one-two punch on the traditional family. Where teachers once relied on mom and dad to have their backs at home, a sizable chunk of parents was now too harried, working too many jobs, or simply too beaten to be reliable allies anymore.

For the same pay and the same hours, teachers were required to play parent and social worker as well. Toss in a swelling immigrant population that struggled to master English, much less calculus, and the job became a worthy punishment for Sisyphus.

Today, it’s an occupation where ceaseless criticism is the norm, and success seems untouchable. That’s left veteran teachers to flee the field and college students to rechart career paths.

Take the second-grade charter school teacher who asks to remain anonymous to protect her job security. She’s been thinking about leaving the profession.

At her school, most teachers get to work at 6:30 a.m. when the building opens. They usually don’t leave until past 5 p.m., when it closes for the night. Yet parents’ effort with their children’s education often seems slender at best.

“I have a lot of parents that just don’t care.”

Add to it the notion that “those who can’t do, teach,” and it’s no surprise that educating kids has lost its glimmer. 

“When you continually criticize an institution, it doesn’t encourage people to get into that profession,” says Superintendent Brown.

At Least It Doesn’t Pay Very Well

For all this denigration, the bar to entry remains prohibitive. Start with the price of a college degree, which might be $80,000 at a state school, or double that at a private one.

In Minnesota, you will be paying back those loans with a starting average salary of $34,500 — less if you work in the countryside.

Salaries can rise to as high as $90,000-plus, with a bonus of health plans that tend to be more generous than those in the private sector, and far more vacation time than most workers get.

But even the highest pay starts to dim when one considers the 10-hour workdays and the weekends correcting papers.

For someone teaching art or sociology, teaching may be the best option going. The same cannot be said of math, science, or technology, where one can fairly easily find better pay without having to hear about how you’re the bane of American progress.

Austin Superintendent David Krenz tells the tale of three students who graduated from his district. They went on to earn college degrees in science and math, fully intending to return home to teach. But they were snatched up by businesses that had no problem beating any offer Austin could summon.

Nor can education offer much job security. Many districts have endured years of constricting budgets. Contrary to the popular view of bloated bureaucracies, the fat was sliced long ago, says Philip Grant, superintendent of Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley Public Schools.

“Schools can only do so much to improve efficiency,” he says. “I’ve worked at a number of schools and I would be hard-pressed to find a case of blatant waste.”

This leaves teachers — particularly younger teachers — with a constant reminder that their jobs may soon vanish.

The problem is especially critical in rural districts. And while legislators demand districts execute educational miracles, they’re usually loath to provide support.

“Right now we fall behind almost every year,” says James Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji schools. “Sometimes the Legislature has some money, and what do they propose to do with it? Give a tax cut. That’s not going to help us attract teachers. We need to value it and put our money where our mouth is.”

This year, Republicans are proposing state spending growth at half the rate of inflation, essentially sentencing districts to financial trouble. Even Gov. Mark Dayton, known as a friend to education, is proposing 2 percent, still short of an inflation rate that’s leaped above 2 percent since October 2015. 

So districts must turn to local tax levies. These can be hard sells in small-town Minnesota, where mining has slumped, crop prices have floundered, and even minimum wage jobs are hard to come by. At times, it’s like asking a man with a stone in his pocket to polish it into gold.

Grant says that in his district, 88 percent of his budget comes from the state. The remaining 12 percent largely comes from local taxes. 

He sees small towns raising taxes to save their schools, even when it’s more efficient to merge with a nearby community. They can’t afford not to. Lose the local schools, and there’s a good chance you’ve launched the town’s death spiral.

“You see that happening in small districts that’ll do almost anything to keep their school going even though it’s not very efficient,” says Grant. “What does a small community have as an option? Those schools are such a centerpiece of those communities.”

Minnesota Unwelcomes You

The state doesn’t make it any easier for new teachers to come to the rescue. Take Minnesota’s licensing program. 

Applicants must pass the Teacher Licensure Exam, which consists of tests in math, writing, reading, pedagogy, and content specific to their field. In other words, you must not only demonstrate mastery of your field, but of areas you’ll never teach.

Those who can’t pass can try again and again until they do. In the meantime, the shortage blooms.

Mark Lundin, superintendent of Blackduck schools, cites a veteran kindergarten teacher who moved to Minnesota, only to be sabotaged by licensing requirements with no bearing on her job.

“She had taught... little ones for 20 years in another state. She had her master’s in it, and when she came to Minnesota to teach [kindergarten], she had to pass the Minnesota test, and part of that is college algebra,” says Lundin. “Now what rationale do you need to pass college algebra to work for that district?”

The woman couldn’t pass the algebra test. Minnesota accelerated its shortage.

To circumvent the problem, districts have lowered their standards. When they can’t find licensed teachers, Minnesota allows the hiring of experts who can teach under a variance license. Aides are also used, especially in areas like special education.

But with high turnover rates, these are stopgap solutions at best.

“They make it such a pain for people to get a license in Minnesota, most people just throw their hands up and say, ‘No I’m not going to do that,’” says Lundin.

The Bleak Road Forth

As the situation snowballs, school officials have gotten creative in stretching scant resources.

Austin Superintendent Krenz has found a way to pay for his teachers to get additional licenses so they can cover more subjects. It leaves him less at the mercy of new applicants, and makes for a more adjustable staff. 

In Northfield, Superintendent Hillmann is trying to grow his own supply by identifying students who may someday make good teachers.

“Look at high school students that might be interested and get them involved,” he says. “Look at starting a pre-internship program, similar to what they have in law enforcement and health care.”

But none of this seems enough to alter an increasingly bleak future.

Take the charter school teacher weighing a change in careers. Much of her day is spent cracking down on behavioral problems, and she’s exhausted by the workload.

“The teacher that I am is not the teacher I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted to be a more compassionate teacher and I wanted to be more loving and I wanted to be more caring, and I feel like that’s not who I am anymore.”