Rural schools like those in Bland County could see some relief from the teacher shortage plaguing the nation thanks to proposed legislation introduced at the end of July.
The Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act, introduced by United States Sen. Tim Kaine, would help ensure that enough teachers and principals with the right skills are available to educate students, according to a statement from Kaine’s office.
“At the start of every school year we see the same headlines about exploding class sizes and districts facing unfillable openings,” said Kaine, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Teacher shortages plague the whole country and are worst in our rural communities, but it’s a problem we can solve.”
According to data compiled by the Virginia Department of Education, the Bland County school district is among the top Virginia schools with the highest percentage of unfilled positions for the 2016-17 school year.
Since that data was collected, however, Bland County schools has had little difficultly filling positions, but Superintended Scott Meade still hopes the legislation could help rural schools attract teachers in the future. While positions are not going unfilled in Bland County, Meade said he’s seen a decrease in the number of applicants than in previous years.
“In the past, you would have five or six people apply. Now it’s only one or two,” he said.“We are feeling the crunch of the teacher shortage. Who knows what the future’s going to look like as some of these teachers retire.”
Meade hopes the legislation will also help rural schools be more competitive when seeking teachers.
“When we go to job fairs and we see the more urban school systems offering bonuses, it’s really hard to compete,” he said. “Hopefully, this will help level the playing field.”
Part of the legislation would open opportunities for “Grow Your Own” programs to be eligible for competitive funding under the Higher Education Act, explained Kaine’s press secretary Miryam Lipper.
“So with the passage of the PREP Act, partnerships consisting of school districts, colleges and community colleges, and states would be able to apply for grand funding that will help them create Grow Your Own programs to recruit local teachers and keep teaching candidates in their communities,” Lipper said.
The also bill authorizes $300 million per year, 10 percent of which would go to states to address teacher shortages and the need for more diversity among educators. The remainder would go toward creating competitive partnership grants to support teacher and school leader preparation programs.
In addition, the legislation would also expand the definition of “high needs” districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act, bringing the required number of low-income students up from 20 percent to 40 percent.
“This will largely make more funds available for rural school districts,” Lipper said.
The PREP Act is supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, among other groups.
“I’m very optimistic that this will help fill all the critical shortages we have in the state of Virginia,” Meade said.
Bland County students will return to their fully-manned classrooms on Thursday.