Alaska has a teacher retention problem. The state is ready to pay someone to help solve it.

Second grade teacher Jenna Nadine works in her empty classroom on the first day of school at Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The state’s education department calls the lack of teachers in Alaska an emergency issue and says the pandemic is only making things worse. It’s willing to pay up to $300,000 to figure out how to attract—and keep—more teachers in the state.

Teachers and the union support the move, but they say the number one reason they’re leaving is pretty obvious.

James Harris is Alaska’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, but he doesn’t live or teach in Alaska anymore.

He took his skills and his family to Washington state a few years ago. There were a lot of reasons, he said, but the big one is retirement.

“Unfortunately, the retirement system in Alaska, it was set up in a way that there was just absolutely no way for me to retire with any kind of dignity,” he said.

Harris began teaching in Alaska in 2006, the first year after the state’s Legislature cut teacher pensions known as “defined benefits.” Alaska is the only state in the union that doesn’t offer teachers a pension or social security benefits.

Teacher turnover has hovered above 20% for the last decade. That puts Harris among the one in five teachers that leaves each year.

He said he hoped state leaders would provide funding for education and educators, but eventually decided he couldn’t wait any longer.

Corrine Marks teaches high school English in Juneau and trains teachers-to-be at the University of Alaska Southeast. She also thinks that the loss of defined benefits is the reason behind so many teachers leaving the state.

She has about 30 people in the program right now. Teachers from Alaska are more likely to stay here, but she still sees turnover.

“I’ve had more teachers come and go just here in Juneau, which is an easy place to stay, comparatively, right? Because they have nothing holding them here,” she said.

Marks plans to retire here, so she can collect her pension.

New teachers get retirement benefits in Alaska; they just aren’t pensions. They usually come in the form of contributions to a retirement account. After teaching for five years, Alaska teachers can take those retirement accounts with them if they leave the state.

Union leaders say that leads to “teacher tourism,” where out-of-state teachers have a five-year Alaska adventure and then take their experience home for the rest of their careers — after Alaska has invested in training them.

“I’ve been working on the pensions issue since the state Legislature first ruined it in 2005,” said state Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

He says dropping the pension was a mistake that’s losing the state money and talent. One study estimates Alaska spends $20 million on teacher turnover each year.

He’s supportive of the state’s effort and says the Legislature bears some of the blame for turnover. It’s up to them to fund education, but they haven’t increased funding for more than five years. That puts stress on the whole system.

Kiehl introduced a bill this year that brings back the opportunity for teachers and other public servants that lost pension in 2006, to earn one again. Not a big one, he said, but it’s an incentive to keep families in Alaska.

“By doing away with a pension, we have created a system where the rational economic choice teacher with five years experience is to leave,” he said.

“Is that really the system we want?

So far, it’s the system Alaska’s been choosing. But this year the education department is investing in someone to lead the state towards a solution to the broader problem of attracting and keeping teachers.

“This is not a problem that we can solve by ourselves,” said Michael Johnson, commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development. “So the department can’t solve it. Not one entity can solve it, not one district, not the Legislature, not the governor. All of us have to work together.”

He agrees pensions and pay are among the biggest issues, but says there’s more than one challenge to teaching in Alaska. Research bears this out. A working group identified six aspects the state should address to attract and keep teaching talent here, things like working conditions and developing leadership.

“The bottom line for me is that we take this report, we take this word from the task force, and then we do something,” said Johnson.

Applications for the job closed on Oct. 15. The state refused to say how many applicants submitted a proposal. The state plans to issue a contract by Nov. 1.

Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter, KTOO

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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