Research is clear that a more diverse teaching force can improve a wide range of student outcomes. For students of color, such outcomes include the increased likelihood of enrolling in advanced math courses, higher attendance and course grades, lower dropout rates, improved social-emotional learning, and a decrease in the likelihood of exclusionary discipline. In Ohio, where students of color make up nearly 33 percent of the public school population, having a diverse teaching force that reflects student demographics is crucial. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: Over 90 percent of Ohio’s public school teachers are White.
To its credit, Ohio has taken a few steps in the right direction. The state’s ESSA plan, which was revised in early 2018, identifies diversifying the teacher workforce as a priority. During the fall of that same year, the state established a Diversifying the Education Profession in Ohio (DEPO) taskforce, and charged its approximately forty members with determining the root causes of diversity gaps and identifying several strategies to address them. And in August 2021, the state announced awardees for Diversifying the Education Profession grants, which will help over a dozen districts across the state diversify their staff.
But Ohio can and should do more, especially in light of the significant learning loss and teacher shortage concerns brought about by the pandemic. Thanks to the DEPO taskforce, which published a brief outlining several recommendations, state leaders already have several stakeholder-approved strategies from which to choose. This piece examines one of those ideas: providing scholarships and loan forgiveness to attract and retain teachers of color. (And no, the Biden Administration’s loan forgiveness policies don’t make that recommendation moot; more on that below.)
Although the DEPO taskforce report doesn’t delve too deeply into the research that backs this recommendation, there is plenty. For example, in 2018, the Brookings Institution examined whether districts offering a variety of financial incentives to teachers had greater diversity among their staff. Although the analysts cautioned that their findings didn’t identify causal relationships, they found “strong associations” between diversity and four incentives: providing funds to assist with relocation expenses, student loan forgiveness, bonuses for demonstrating excellence in teaching, and bonuses for teaching in schools that were located in “less desirable” locations.
The Brookings analysis reported that relocation assistance appeared to be the strongest predictor of a more diverse teaching force, followed by loan forgiveness, performance bonuses, and bonuses for teaching in certain locations. Analysts also pointed out that these incentives may have an “underlying rationale” that makes them particularly attractive to teachers of color. For example, data indicates that Black college students are more likely to take on student debt, that the disparity in student loan debt between Black and White students more than triples after graduation, and that Black and Latino students who train to become teachers are more likely to borrow federal student loans compared to their White peers. Research also reveals that debt can motivate graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and, as a result, reduce the likelihood that they will choose to work in “low-paid, public interest” jobs like education.
A recent RAND study produced similar findings. After analyzing results from the 2022 State of the American Teacher survey, the study’s authors found that teachers of color identified increased pay and loan forgiveness as their top recommendations for recruiting and retaining more teachers of color. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who participated in a related panel discussion recommended these strategies, as well. And the study also noted that many interviewed teachers mentioned that reducing the cost of educator preparation overall—whether through scholarships, loan forgiveness, or lowered licensure exam fees—would attract more teachers of color to the profession.
In short, the DEPO taskforce recommendation seems spot on: Providing scholarships and loan forgiveness is a solid strategy, backed by research and anecdotal evidence, for attracting and retaining teachers of color. So far, though, Ohio hasn’t done much with it. The upcoming budget cycle is the perfect opportunity to change that. Here are two specific ideas:
- Provide Diversifying the Education Profession grants to institutions of higher education. Just as Ohio did for K–12 districts with Diversifying the Education Profession grants, state leaders could establish a grant program that awards funding to colleges and universities with promising ideas for how to diversify the teacher candidates enrolling in and graduating from their preparation programs.
- Create a state-run scholarship program geared toward teacher candidates who are first-generation college students. Data show that first-generation college students are more diverse than their counterparts. Creating a state-run program that provides scholarships to first-generation students could yield a more diverse group of teacher candidates without miring the state in legal issues that could come from an explicitly race-conscious program.
If Ohio isn’t interested in investing in teacher candidates, they could provide financial relief to teachers by forgiving outstanding student loan debt. There are several states that offer a variety of loan forgiveness options that Ohio could use as models. But as is the case with scholarships, using state funds to forgive student loans might be controversial and politically difficult—especially since the federal government already offers loan forgiveness programs for teachers.
Political difficulty doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done, though. A 2018 report from the federal Government Accountability Office noted that many borrowers don’t seem to understand or be aware of the requirements of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. PSLF and other federal debt relief programs (like TEACH grants) also have a troubling track record. Even in light of a recent overhaul, their lingering negative reputation might be enough to make prospective teachers assume loan forgiveness is out of reach. And while the student loan debt relief plan and changes to income-based repayment programs recently unveiled by the Biden administration should help both current and future borrowers, the average high school and college student might not understand all the ins and outs. The upshot? There are lots of debt relief options for teachers already in place, but complex rules, bad reputations, and a lack of knowledge could be limiting their reach and steering students of color away from the education field.
That’s where the state could step in. Ohio could establish a student loan ombudsman to help teachers navigate the complexity of loan forgiveness options. Requiring colleges to ensure that their students—especially teacher candidates, and especially candidates of color—have accurate, up-to-date, and concise information about student loan forgiveness options could be a gamechanger. Engaging with nonprofits and organizations that support college students and teachers of color and making sure that they, too, have access to information and resources is also critical. If Ohio can create and support a network that helps demystify loan forgiveness options for teachers, and then couple it with state-funded scholarships and grants that lessen the amount of debt teachers have in the first place, that could have a monumental impact on the pipeline and the current workforce.
Of course, as Brookings points out, scholarships and student loan forgiveness aren’t the only financial incentives that the state could consider. Relocation assistance could help bring talented out-of-state teachers to Ohio, but lawmakers would likely need to make some adjustments to licensure laws—adjustments I outlined in this brief—for that to work. Allowing districts to pay teachers more flexibly, creating a refundable tax-credit for teachers who choose to teach in high-need districts, and reforming Ohio’s pension system (all of which are also covered in the aforementioned brief) could also help make teaching more attractive, especially for candidates of color.
The bottom line is that if Ohio wants to strengthen the teacher pipeline and boost student academic outcomes, it needs to take steps to diversify the profession. As the DEPO taskforce report indicates, there are many ways to do that. But financial incentives—especially the scholarship and student loan forgiveness options outlined above—could be a great place to start.