It wasn't so long ago that Charles Prijatelj, the superintendent of the Altoona Area School District, was receiving up to 150 applications for elementary school teacher job openings.
In recent years, however, the number of applicants for each opening at his 7,400-student district in central Pennsylvania has dwindled to as little as three or four.
“There just aren't enough teachers. There isn't a big pool to pull from. Retirements are through the roof and people are leaving the profession even more than they were due to all the havoc from Covid,” Prijatelj told NBC News. “It's dire."
The decline Prijatelj has seen in his district mirrors a national trend, according to federal data and analysis of that data. And as President Joe Biden pitches universal preschool and free community college as part of his plans to overhaul a coronavirus-ravaged economy, education experts see teachers as the linchpin. The $9 billion that Biden's American Families Plan would set aside to address the country's increasingly acute shortage — one that was worsened, though not created by, the pandemic — represents a critical investment for the White House to make good on many other parts of his domestic agenda, these experts said.
“If you think about it, what is education? It’s teaching. You have to have a teacher to do the teaching. You can’t get anything else done without a teacher in the classroom,” said Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, an education policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell.
Not enough teachers for America's students
Teacher demand exceeded supply for grades K-12 in the country's public schools by more than 100,000 in 2019 for the first time ever, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a Washington-based education policy think tank that has extensively studied the causes and effects of the teacher shortage.
The projected number of retirements and pandemic- and burnout-related exits from the field in coming years far exceeds the declining number of students pursuing teaching preparation programs. Since 2010, the amount that demand for teachers has exceeded supply has approximately quadrupled, according to LPI research. More than 270,000 public school teachers are projected to leave the profession between 2016 and 2026, according to government data, and recent polling by a prominent national teachers union showed that nearly 1 in 3 teachers said Covid-19 has made them more likely to resign or retire early.
Biden wants to fix the nation's teacher shortage. Educators say the problem is worsening.
President Joe Biden's American Families Plan includes $9 billion to address the shortage, providing funding to train, equip and diversify the nation’s teachers.
Enrollment and total completion in teacher preparation programs each fell by about one-third from 2010 to 2018, according to a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy research nonprofit. By 2018, that study showed, just 160,000 students were completing teacher preparation programs.
“We have to be worried about all of that. This is a crucial moment to acknowledge teachers and acknowledge what the future looks like to support them,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, who led Biden’s education policy transition team and was considered to lead his Education Department. "This is the moment for all of us, and the federal government, to step up and support teachers, and teaching.”
Reasons behind the decline are plentiful, but experts said the role played by student debt is among the largest.
"People who want to go into teaching can’t go into a lot of debt, so alleviating debt levels for people who want to be teachers is very important,” added Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and founder of LPI.
Biden's plan focuses on pipeline, retention
Included in the American Families Plan's $9 billion to address the teacher shortage is money to train, equip and diversify the nation’s teachers. (The overall price tag on Biden's plan is $1.8 trillion.)
The proposed money seeks to increase the number of people who study education and want to enter the field, keep existing teachers from leaving the field and allow existing teachers and professionals from other fields easier and less expensive opportunities to obtain certification for particularly in-demand specialties within teaching.
Nearly a third of the $9 billion would go toward creating and expanding “Grow Your Own” programs, which aim, particularly in areas with large populations of students of color, to recruit, develop and retain teachers who are already in the community, as well as other teacher residency programs.
The proposed money includes $1.6 billion to help increase the pipeline of particularly in-demand educators, like special education teachers and bilingual teachers, as well as $2 billion for support programs, like formal mentorship programs for new teachers and teachers of color, aimed at helping keep existing teachers in the field.
To further address the shortage of teachers of color, Biden is proposing another $400 million to fund teacher preparation programs at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.
Only about 20 percent of teachers are teachers of color, while students of color make up more than half of the overall population of all K-12 schools, according to government data.
“The scholarships that they say it will offer to address the pipeline of teachers of color is going to be critical,” said Eric Becoats, superintendent of the 5,000-student William Penn School District outside Philadelphia.
During the 2020-2021 school year, just 20 percent of his district's teachers were teachers of color, while its student population was more than 96 percent students of color.
“The supply chain of teachers of color is not nearly as strong as we need it to be,” he said.
American Families Plan proponents, however, acknowledge one glaring issue: The plan doesn’t attempt to address low salaries for teachers, which is among the most significant reasons behind the teacher shortage.
A 2020 survey found that 67 percent of teachers have or had a second job “to make ends meet.” A 2019 study concluded that the decline in college students pursuing careers as teachers was because of “low salaries” and “difficult working conditions.”
In interviews, experts and educators acknowledged that it may not be the federal government’s role to address teacher pay and that many states have taken action on the issue. Still, a shortage will persist if the question of pay is never addressed, even modestly.
“We have to tackle and talk about what we pay our teachers,” Becoats said. “Without a solution there, there will likely continue to be a problem.”
'Integral' to Biden's agenda
Biden’s broader economic agenda and his education policy proposals are intertwined, experts said.
Without a robust force of qualified teachers, many things in Biden’s legislative proposals — like creating a universal pre-K program; an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math education; and narrowing the achievement gap between white students and students of color — are unlikely to happen, said Heyward, of the CRPE.
Meeting Biden's Covid-19-related goals, like fully reopening schools as the pandemic eases, would also be a challenge.
“A lot of educational investment in the past 20 years has been about building out administrative infrastructure in schools, deans, coaches, a lot of accountability measures. But there hasn’t been a lot of investment in teachers themselves or in creating a supply of teachers that allows schools to really get the best fit teachers or in retention strategies that allow them to keep teachers. That is integral,” she said. “That helps everything that comes after that.”
Meanwhile, conservative policy research organizations say the solutions are far better coming from state capitals, not Washington, D.C., and that specific aspects of the shortage could be better addressed with targeted measures.
Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute specializing in education policy, said state funding for Grow Your Own programs in places like Illinois and Texas, state programs that have raised teacher salaries, and differential pay for in-demand specialty teachers are preferable to a “one-size-fits-all check” from the federal government.
“It’s more helpful to look at teacher shortages individually, both in a regional and state-by-state way, as well as in a subject-matter way,” said Smarick, an alumnus of the George W. Bush White House and Maryland State Board of Education.
The Biden administration, still mired in negotiations over the president's plans for a massive jobs and infrastructure overhaul, hasn’t even begun talking with the GOP in earnest about the American Families Plan, and no specific legislation has been written yet. A number of Republicans in Congress have made their opposition to the overall package clear.
Back in Altoona, Prijatelj said the goal of any broad federal spending on teachers should restore a certain level of "normalcy and dignity" to public schools following decades of gradual decline.
"No one goes into education to become a millionaire," Prijatelj said. "But people have historically looked at it as a good living, where you can make a difference."
"Public schools are the backbone of the workforce," he said.
Joe Biden dismisses latest GOP infrastructure counteroffer as falling short of his objectives
President Joe Biden rebuffed the latest Republican infrastructure counteroffer that would moderately increase spending, arguing it does not meet his "objectives to grow the economy, tackle the climate crisis, and create new jobs," the White House said.
Mr. Biden's reaction indicates that ongoing negotiations between the president and a group Republican senators may soon come grinding to a halt, as there remain significant differences over the cost of an infrastructure proposal, as well as how it should be funded.
The White House released a readout of a call between Mr. Biden and GOP Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the lead Republican negotiator, on Friday afternoon. Although the two are expected to speak again on Monday, it's unclear whether there is any further progress to be made. Capito's office also provided a readout of the discussion on Friday.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Capito offered a roughly "$50 billion increase in spending across a number of infrastructure programs" in the meeting with Mr. Biden on Friday. Capito and her group had previously proposed a $928 billion counteroffer with $257 billion in new spending, well short of the $1.7 trillion sought by the president.
"The President expressed his gratitude for her effort and goodwill, but also indicated that the current offer did not meet his objectives to grow the economy, tackle the climate crisis, and create new jobs. He indicated to Senator Capito that he would continue to engage a number of Senators in both parties in the hopes of achieving a more substantial package," Psaki said.
Republicans have balked at the cost of Mr. Biden's offer, and rejected his proposal to pay for it by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, as they have no interest in undoing the 2017 tax cut legislation signed by former President Donald Trump. In a meeting with Capito in person at the White House on Wednesday, the president emphasized portions of his plan that would be funded through corporate taxes, such as setting a 15% minimum tax on the nation's most profitable companies. However, this also seems likely to be opposed by Republican lawmakers, who may view it as an unnecessary tax hike.
Republicans have suggested using unspent funds from previous coronavirus relief measures to pay for infrastructure legislation, but this has largely been rejected by the White House.
Mr. Biden did suggest repurposing up to $75 billion in monies from coronavirus relief measures that passed before the American Rescue Plan, Psaki said on Thursday, but she noted that the "vast majority of these funds are allocated."
Mr. Biden also spoke with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio, the White House said, after DeFazio on Friday unveiled a surface infrastructure bill that would cost $547 billion over five years, focused on roads, transit and passenger and freight rail.
"The President also spoke to Chairman DeFazio to thank him for all his hard work on key elements of the American Jobs Plan, and to offer his support for the Committee mark-up that Chairman DeFazio will begin on Wednesday," Psaki said. "The President and Chairman DeFazio agreed on the benefits of continued engagement with Democratic and Republican Senators as the House work on infrastructure advances this coming week."
The legislation does not include any means to pay for it, since that is not part of the committee's jurisdiction. The committees that write congressional funding measures, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance, have not yet proposed ways of funding the infrastructure bills.
The new bill introduced by DeFazio indicates that Democrats may be willing to move forward without Republican support if necessary.
Senate Democrats are already laying the groundwork to pass the larger infrastructure package through Congress using budget reconciliation, a process that would allow the measure to pass without any Republican votes. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated last week that the Senate would move forward with infrastructure legislation in July, regardless of whether Republicans and Democrats are able to come to an agreement.
Manchin’s homegrown bipartisanship comes up against a changing world
When Joe Manchin was in the fight of his political life, vying for reelection in a state where being a Democrat had long been out of fashion, the senator’s opening message to voters focused on the place he knew best: Farmington, West Virginia.
Manchin argued throughout his last reelection campaign that it was his upbringing in the small Appalachian town set on the banks of Buffalo Creek — from working at his family’s local grocery store to watching how relationships in his hometown transcended political lines — that helped make him a politician who would listen to even his most ardent detractors and use his power to make sure every bipartisan avenue was exhausted before he picked the best option for the people of his state.
That persona has served Manchin well, to date. He’s survived election after election in this increasingly Republican bastion to become the most conservative Democrat in an evenly divided Senate — a role that allows him to put his stamp on anything his party wants to accomplish, which includes just about everything these days. Manchin has wielded this influence to change the coronavirus relief package, force Democrats to try and work with Republicans on infrastructure and squash any talk of getting rid of Senate rules that would make it easier for the Democrats, currently in the majority, to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda.
But back home, Manchin is facing a set of opposing forces. Republicans in the state, loyal to former President Donald Trump and consumed with the partisan politics of the moment, have grown annoyed at how Manchin signals a willingness to break with Democrats but often votes with the party in the end. And many Democrats in the state, worn down by years of Republican domination, worry that Manchin’s undying focus on bipartisanship is no longer possible when the Republican Party is unwilling to meet in the middle.
This tension has forced the tenets of Manchin’s personal and political story to run up against a changing world.
Farmington, the town that made Manchin, has fallen on hard times in recent years, struggling to hold on to population as jobs have moved elsewhere and local businesses have shuttered. And Manchin’s brand of bipartisan politics, one partially informed by the mentorship he enjoyed from the late Sen. Robert Byrd, is that of a bygone era, as partisan politics and party line votes take hold everywhere from Washington to the state capital of Charleston.
Conversations with more than 15 West Virginians a day after Manchin told CNN he has no intention of changing his approach, revealed both a deep respect for Manchin’s desire for bipartisanship and a growing impatience that questioned whether such agreement was possible any longer.
“As much as I appreciate Joe’s ideal — maybe that is where his heart is at and maybe that is because of his roots — there has to come a time when you have to realize (Republicans) are not going to sit down and hold hands and sing kumbaya,” said Donna Costello, the former mayor of Manchin’s hometown and a longtime friend of the Manchin family. “And you have to do what is in the best interest of what put you there.”
Manchin, 73, is now the only Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia. Top Democrats in the state know if he were not in his Senate seat, a Republican invariably would be. And plenty of voters, including those who voted for Trump multiple times, are proud that their senator, even though he is a Democrat, is willing to try and make bipartisanship work.
“You have to meet somewhere in the middle,” said John Ross, a Marion County voter who worked at the Manchin family’s carpet store in the 1980s. Ross voted for former President Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, but during Manchin’s 2018 reelection campaign, he backed his old friend. “You have to be able to have a common goal — what’s in the best interest of our country and use common sense.”
But as Republican election officials nationwide have hardened toward working with Democrats, so have West Virginians who, like the state, have moved to the right in recent years and, looking at their own transformation, would like their Democratic senator to do the same.
“I am not a tremendous fan just because he doesn’t know which way he is playing,” said Lucinda Powell, a former Democrat and bail bonds manager in Fairmont. “One minute he goes with the Democrats, one minute he goes with the Republicans. Pick a side and go with it.”
‘The middle ground could be found’
Manchin’s upbringing centered on understanding and hard work.
For a long time in the state, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who needed to find political friends on the left to get anything done. And as Manchin rose through local politics, first as a member of the House of Delegates, then as a state senator, secretary of state and finally governor, Manchin was known for including Republicans in negotiations, even if Democrats enjoyed sizable majorities in the state.
“He told me one time, I will never forget, if you have an issue where you cannot get one vote to go with you from the other party, regardless of who is in the majority … it is probably a bad idea,” recalled Mike Caputo, a Democratic state senator in West Virginia who served as majority whip in the House of Delegates during Manchin’s time as governor.
He added: “Joe has always been the kind of guy that has always believed you can find common ground if you work hard enough. I know when he was governor, we had major disagreements, but he always believed that if we talked long enough and both sides wanted to find a resolution, the middle ground could be found.”
Manchin signaled this position remains inside him in an interview on Thursday, telling CNN’s Manu Raju that he was not ready to get rid of the Senate legislative filibuster, a move that would allow Democrats to do more without Republican support.
“We’re going to make the place work, and you can’t make it work unless the minority has input,” Manchin said, defending the filibuster. “You can’t disregard a person that’s not in the majority, the Senate was never designed that way.”
Small town roots inform bipartisan focus
It is impossible to miss Manchin’s connections to his hometown.
As you get closer to the village, the Manchin name begins to appear everywhere. The local clinic bears his family’s name, there are signs heading into town that proclaim Farmington the “Home of Joe Manchin III” and there is even a throwback sign that recalls the days when Manchin’s grandfather, affectionately known as Papa Joe, ran a grocery store in the community.
Manchin lived an idyllic life in town. He grew up helping in the family’s grocery business and played quarterback at the local high school, eventually earning a football scholarship to West Virginia University before an injury cut short his athletic career. His high school yearbook described him as “Athletics come natural.” And a full page in the yearbook blared, “What Will We Do In Track Without Joe?”
Members of the extended Manchin family still call the town home, including the senator’s sister, who lives in the brick house that the family grew up in close to the creek.
But the town that shaped Manchin changed years ago, people in the community say. As coal production in West Virginia began to fall, so did the coal mining jobs, the local businesses and the grocery stores that went with it. The town, with a population of roughly 400 people, is now a shell of its former self. A bright bakery anchors the main road through town, along with a Family Dollar — the replacement to the multiple local grocery stores the town once enjoyed — and a health clinic bearing Manchin’s name.
But the lessons imparted on Manchin, helping neighbors whether you agree with them politically or not, endure within the senator.
Theresa Witt, Manchin’s cousin, recalls how the senator’s grandparents baked bread every weekend for all the families in the small town and often sent food from their grocery store to the families of laid off coal miners.
And when tragedy struck the area and affected his family, that stayed with him, too.
One of Manchin’s uncles died in the Farmington Mine disaster, a 1968 explosion that killed 78 miners. The disaster shook the community and helped lawmakers in the state pass a number of laws to protect miners. Decades later, as governor, Manchin found himself at the center of numerous fights over coal, including more mining disasters.
“When there was a coal mine disaster while he was governor, I watched it and I saw so many things in Joe then that I always knew,” Witt recalled, growing emotional as she remembers the miners. “I said to Joe, I saw every one of our ancestors when I watched you help all those people. And it was such a tragedy that those men were trapped, and then we thought they were alive, and then one came out alive. It was really heartfelt. It was sincere.”
Standing on the porch of Manchin’s childhood home, Witt spoke about how Manchin’s process for making decisions comes straight back to where he was raised.
“When a bill is introduced to Joe… he thinks about his parents. And what would his parents think, if they would be proud of the way he’s voting this way,” she said. “And I know that a couple times people have said to me, ‘Why is Joe voting like this?’ or ‘Why is Joe voting like that?’ and I would ask Joe, and he would say, tell them to call me and I’ll explain it. Because sometimes in bills there’s some things that aren’t as pleasing to people’s beliefs in our community but if there’s more good in it than bad then Joe always says we can work on the bad. But we need to work together to try to get some things taken care of.”
As central as coal has been in Manchin’s story, the industry also sped up his state’s political shift. While West Virginia Democrats have always been more conservative, many Democrats believe the state’s political shift began in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore made comments about coal and climate change that rankled miners and worried the industry, allowing then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to win the state and eventually the presidency.
The shift has been evident in every presidential election since. In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton carried the state by nearly 15 percentage points. Twenty-four years later, Trump won it by nearly 39 percentage points, the second largest margin for the Republican president in any state.
West Virginia has grown so ruby red that multiple elected Democrats, including the state’s governor, have switched parties to hold on to their political futures.
Manchin has remained a Democrat and, so far, has survived the transformation.
But the real shift has been felt on the local level, where a huge swath of municipal, county and state offices have become nearly impossible for Democrats to win, despite dominating them just years earlier.
The shift and Manchin’s survival have led Democrats in West Virginia to believe one truth: If Manchin was not their senator, that seat would undoubtedly be held by a Republican.
“It wouldn’t be a Democrat, not in these times,” said Caputo. “And it really pains me to say that. It really does. I am a strong believer in Democratic values and a proud member of the party, but I just have to be realistic here. That is why it is a little hard to get mad at Joe when he doesn’t do everything you want.”
A political unicorn
Manchin’s political positioning — often voting with Democrats but refusing to go along with the party on key issues — has rankled countless national Democrats, many of whom accuse the senator of standing in the way of needed legislation all to preserve his own political power. At best, in the eyes of these Democrats, Manchin is solely representing the views of his politically changing state. At worse, they believe, he is a politician bent on being the most important man in the Senate.
But Manchin is as savvy a political operator as he is a political unicorn. Where the West Virginia Democrat’s one-time colleagues from states like Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota have long ago lost their seats, Manchin has held on.
“He is acting upon what he believes his constituents want and so I know a lot of national Democrats may be upset with him that he is working across party lines, but that’s what we should be doing in politics,” said Michael Angelucci, a former West Virginia delegate who, as a Democrat, was elected to represent Farmington and the surrounding area in 2018 but lost reelection in 2020. “We should be able to work together. There are people of both parties that get frustrated because they’re either too far left or too far right. And we need to come together, learn how to work together, and that’s what Joe does.”
The ability to survive in West Virginia has even impressed some Republicans, like West Virginia auditor John B. McCuskey, a Republican whose family has known the Manchins for decades and who linked Manchin’s abilities with the state’s other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
“For me, when you have Manchin and Capito as the two people who are representing our state in Washington, what you are really doing is showing the rest of the country that results-based politics still plays,” said McCuskey. “And when you put your state and your district as your guiding principles, it enables you to legislate more effectively.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state attribute Manchin’s longevity to a mix of good fortune — he has faced less-than-stellar challengers in recent years — and deep ties to the people who elect him, along with an uncanny knack for making people who are angry with him warm up.
People close to Manchin have seen this ability in action — and say his belief that he can win over people if they all get in a room together defines his current positioning in the Senate.
Belinda Biafore, the chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party who has been involved with all of Manchin’s campaigns since the 1980s, said every time he refuses to go along with a key Democratic tenet, she would often get an earful from activists and have to relay that to the senator.
“Often times some of the members of the committee, or just activists, would come to me and want to complain about the senator,” Biafore recalled. When the pressure got too much, she would schedule a meeting with Manchin so that the senator could hear out his detractors.
“(He) came in with a box of doughnuts, got some coffee, went around the room, shook hands, kissed folks on the cheek, gave them a hug and then he started the meeting,” she recalled.
“He gave them this big speech about what was going on, what he was doing. He said you all have any questions. Silence. So, as he left the room, they wanted pictures taken with him, they wanted another hug on his way out the door. And then we got out into the hallway, and he said, ‘I thought you said they were mad at me.'”