Danville’s school superintendent called Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine’s bill introduced last week to address teacher shortages “an economic development initiative for our entire country.”

“In the world we live in, if you don’t create a thriving education system, you’re not going to compete globally,” said Superintendent Stanley Jones.

Kaine, a Democrat and a member of the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act on Tuesday.

“This legislation will help ensure there are enough teachers and principals with the right skills and tools to educate students and prepare them for the future,” according to a news release from Kaine’s office.

The bill proposes expansion of the definition of “high need” districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act to include those experiencing teacher shortages in rural communities and in areas such as special education, English language, science, technology, engineering, math, to allow for access to additional support and improvement, according to the news release.

It would also encourage school districts to create partnerships with local community colleges and universities to ensure programs are educating future teachers in areas where there is a shortage.

“It would help communities educate teachers and keep them in the community,” said Miryam Lipper, press secretary for Kaine.

Danville is among the top school divisions with the highest percentage and number of unfilled teacher positions in the state. The city’s public school system had 47 unfilled teacher positions in 2016-17 — a shortage of about 10 percent, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“Teacher shortages plague the whole country and are worst in our rural communities, but it’s a problem we can solve,” Kaine said in a prepared statement. “When teachers and principals have the tools they need to succeed, they are more likely to stay in their roles. This bill will help us tackle this issue in Virginia and across the country.”

While expressing support for Kaine’s bill, Jones pointed to the Danville school district’s recent change in its salary structure to help attract and retain more teachers.

The school division’s staff level is at about 95 percent this year — for the first time in the three years since Jones has been superintendent.

Danville’s former staple industries — tobacco and textiles — are a fraction of what they used to be and manufacturing has become more technical, Jones pointed out. Who will create the skills needed for those careers for the school system’s kids? “Teachers do that,” he said.

“Kaine’s bill is an investment that’s an economic development initiative for our entire country,” Jones said.

Teaching is the profession that creates all the other professions, Jones said.

“Kaine is on the right track,” Jones said. “We can’t continue to separate public education from all other things. Public education is the main artery of the economic viability of our country.”

The bill would also:

» Increase access to teacher and school leader residency programs and preparation training;

» Require states to identify areas of teacher or school leader shortages by subject across public schools and use that data to target their efforts;

» Increase support for teacher preparation programs at historically black colleges and universities, since the majority of students in public schools are students of color, and teachers of color make up only 20 percent of the teaching workforce.

John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at jcrane@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7987.

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