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Teachers leaving to ‘get 20% more’ in non-teaching jobs: AFT union president

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the factors driving the teacher shortage, the upcoming school year, and teacher wages.

Video transcript

- Well, shortage of teachers across the country continue to cause concerns ahead of the new school year. An American Federation of teachers task force recently issued recommendations for the country to attract and retain talent. Joining us to discuss is AFT President Randi Weingarten. Randi, always good to have you on the show. We have heard stories from all over the country about shortage of teachers, what that means for back to school, and really a network being created so teachers can alert each other to those who are moving so that they know right away when another teacher is coming in. I mean, talk to me about what this means for planning for the upcoming school year and how this affects it.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well you have a perfect storm going on right now. And we have been warning about this for a long time. That's why we had this big teacher shortage report that we adopted this summer, chock full of ways of how to solve. But what you have is you have higher number of retirements this year, which everyone predicted because it was a really, really hard year.

You have fewer people going into the profession. You have a hot labor market where teachers can get 20% more for the skills and knowledge they have teaching in non-teaching jobs. You have all of the pandemic stress and strain, particularly that kids are coming in with greater needs because of two years of disruption. And not only have the conditions not really changed, but school districts and the federal government and others just pretend as if there was no pandemic.

And then you have all of the politics, the culture wars, the shaming and blaming, the banning of books, the censoring of curriculum. So teachers are-- they wonder-- and I'll give you an example. So many teachers said to me, if a kid asked them a question after the Buffalo mass shooting, if they were in Florida or Texas, they didn't know whether they could answer the question that the shooter was a white supremacist because of the new rules that had passed. So you add all of that together and you have a perfect storm. It was foreseeable and it is fixable. But we have to actually have the will to fix it.

- Yeah, Randi, it's Brian Cheung here. When we look at the data, especially on the local level of employed teachers, you see that massive shortfall that has not had the recovery that the overall labor market has had. We are still very, very short of where we were pre-pandemic because of the factors that you outlined. Now you talk about salaries and benefits.

And when we look at local government specifically, municipal budgets are a big part of this. So how do you think they factor into this? Because even my mom, she works at a small school in a local town. And she's been saying, look there are people that are leaving. They're asking her to double up on roles, doing lunch duty in addition to doing the teaching. It's not a simple solution, right?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well it's not a simple solution. But there are obvious remedies, some of which don't cost a dime and some of which cost money, which is-- and the money is there from the Biden Administration for doing stuff certainly in the short run. And so you've just put up some of the solutions, which is, you lower class size. That's one of the ways that you meet the needs of kids, particularly post-pandemic if we want to accelerate learning.

Paperwork is a huge issue. We spend more time actually answering the data demands of states and localities and the federal government instead of actually focusing on teaching. The standardized tests, they've never changed. There's a different-- what kids need to know and be able to do is different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Let's align our accountability system with what we know we need to do.

And because of the hot market, we have to have salaries where teachers' salaries that are competitive. So it's these are the things that you need to do. And some districts are doing them. And the places that are not doing, them like in Florida, where he's just, the governor is just basically demonizing teachers, that's where you have the largest shortages.

- Randi, really quickly, another new school year means we're talking about new potential COVID guidelines for schools. Vaccines not necessarily required for students, even though all students are now eligible in terms of the age group. Questions about whether masks will be required, social distancing will be squeezed up a little bit more. What are you hearing from teachers? Are they're prepared for this next stage where there aren't as stringent requirements in place?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, we're big believers that this is not a year to impose additional mandates. We have a lot of treatment options and mitigation strategies that have worked. You see that in terms of how, even though COVID is still around and still serious, it is far less serious than it was before. And so we're a big believer that we should be focusing on what kids need in terms the basics, reading, science, math, having extracurricular activities making sure that these mitigations like masking and testing and vaccines are really available, making sure there's no stigma to somebody who needs to or wants to wear a mask.

But right now, let's focus on the academics and spend our time really meeting the needs of kids, including lowering class size, dealing with the teacher shortage, making sure we have the good ventilation and the emotional social support that kids need.

- Yeah, probably something a lot of people can agree on. Randi, always good to have you on. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joining us today.