Op-Ed: Private schools are poised to help with teacher shortage

From teacher shortages to tense school board meetings, Iowa education faces challenges that could become crises if we do not take action quickly. A model for responding to these challenges can be…

From teacher shortages to tense school board meetings, Iowa education faces challenges that could become crises if we do not take action quickly. A model for responding to these challenges can be found in an underestimated corner of K-12 education: private schools. As a private school leader, I know that innovation and accountability are baked into the private school DNA; it’s how we survive. We helped provide a solution during COVID-19, and we can help again now.

When COVID-19 hit, private schools led the way in pivoting to distance learning. For our school, it didn’t matter whether the state said distance learning counted towards our academic program— we were going to do it, because our families needed us to be there for them every single day. That meant innovation, developing online solutions and workarounds on the fly. COVID-19 forced the speed of our innovation, but it’s also who we are as a private school. Responsiveness to community needs is what keeps families choosing us and allows us to exist as a school choice.

It’s going to take similar innovation to prevent what is currently a very predictable labor shortage from becoming a crisis. In addition to teachers leaving the profession during COVID-19, fewer students are entering teacher prep programs, which means a ripple effect down the road. To respond, schools will need to think about teacher qualifications very differently, making a bureaucratic process more efficient. Private schools are poised to lead the way, developing their own teacher prep programs and training people from non-traditional backgrounds for classroom instruction.

Beyond the labor challenge, school boards have become a bigger source of controversy in recent months, both in Iowa and nationally. While school boards play an important role in the education system, all of us should keep in mind that any top-down system — even one on the local level — can create only so much change. As we see in private schools, a more powerful solution for positive change in education is school choice, which gives each family the ultimate form of accountability.

Accountability in school choice is a two-way street. On the one side, it makes educators responsive to family needs. As a private school, we would quickly lose students and funding if our teachers were poorly trained. On the other side, choice also makes families accountable to their school community. Every year, we see many educators willing to take lower pay to work in our mission-driven environment, knowing that families who have affirmatively opted into our school will remain more engaged and supportive of a learning partnership. School boards are important, but this parent-teacher partnership in practice is even more powerful.

School choice isn’t just about private schools. Whether the choice is a charter school, neighborhood school, online school, or private school, when every household has options, accountability increases. But private schools do represent a uniquely innovative and close-knit choice for Iowa families, even while often operating on less than half the funding per student compared with public schools. Just imagine what we could do with greater funding support, such as through an Educational Savings Account program. Private schools could become accessible for any family who desires it, and we could expand resources to assist public schools in serving special education students.

This School Choice Week (Jan. 23-29), let’s keep in mind that education really is a vocation. All of us who work in it are here not to climb a corporate ladder but to serve kids. That’s a goal that should unite us all as we respond to the labor shortage and families’ call for greater responsiveness in schools. As we take on these challenges, private schools have an opportunity to take on a leadership role in recruiting and training teachers and sharing lessons learned from a track record of serving families.

This article originally appeared in the Des Moines Register.