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Learn along with us as we examine the state of education in Iowa and the various issues it faces today.

Who's running the show?

Illustration by Josie Fischels

Many teachers and school staff members have quit or retired across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, and a recent survey from the National Education Association reports that 55% of teachers are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than planned.

How serious is the staff shortage?

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek says he's seen teacher and staff shortages across the state.

"It isn't just the individuals who are working in our food and nutrition program or driving our buses, it is actually affecting every part of the system," he said.

With insurance and other costs increasing due to inflation, some schools are going as far as to cut teacher benefits to save extra money.

Beranek says that the investment elected officials have claimed to make in education is far below what is needed.

"If we say that we've increased our funding by 2.5%, but the inflation rate is much higher, that just continues to make the gap wider on what our schools can do to afford to hire employees, and to offer the benefits and salaries that make them competitive in our private sectors," he said.

Changes to collective bargaining have left some schools without the ability to hire the people they need

Back in 2017, the state Legislature made changes to Iowa's collective bargaining law that took away a lot of the leverage teachers' unions had to negotiate salary and benefits.

Beranek says an unintended consequence of those changes is that it has created destination districts across the state as some schools are now unable to hire since they cannot maintain a teacher's contractual rights.

"What the state did with the collective bargaining language was very detrimental to the entire system, and we need to explore how to revitalize that."

Reasons for leaving

This exodus of teachers and staff isn't just about the pandemic, though it certainly has made things much worse. Teachers have cited low pay, poor benefits, crowded classrooms, a lack of resources due to declining funding, safety concerns, the challenges of managing student behavior and politically motivated harassment as their reasons for leaving the classroom.

Brydie Criswell, who left public education as a special education teacher after 13 years, said her safety and the safety of her students were often compromised at her job despite her plans to fix the situation. Without support, funding and enough resources, she felt alone and one day completely broke down.

"I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't fix this and I couldn't do it by myself," she said. "I was in an impossible situation."

She said it was extremely hard to leave everything she'd worked for behind.

"It was so important to me. I had put everything into that, my training, my schooling, my board certifications, everything. I wanted to be the best that I could be for the kids."

The role of a public educator has also been politicized and attacked by lawmakers, from book bans to public school curriculum, which has also impacted funding and overall morale.

In listening posts at Des Moines Public Schools, President of the Des Moines Education Association Joshua Brown said attacks were among the things making teachers want to leave, as well as time restrictions to teach their curriculum, lack of funding and low salaries, feeling unsafe at school and feeling unheard.

"We need to stop attacking our systems and stop attacking our educators because we all are watching that, and it's making people [decide] not to enter the field," Beranek said. "To drown out the negative narratives that are coming from out of the state to attack our schools and demoralize our educators and diminish the quality of the work we do."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Dani Gehr is a producer for River to River and Talk of Iowa. Dani came to Iowa from her hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to attend Iowa State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, international studies and French. Before coming to IPR, Dani covered local government in Story County for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register.
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.