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These Two Things Might Be Shrinking the Number of Teacher Vacancies in Kansas

Districts in cities and rural areas have the most teacher vacancies. Filling positions in high demand subjects such as science, math and English can be particularly tough. (Photo by Chris Neal for the Kansas News Service)

Education officials in Kansas are taking a two-pronged approach to reducing  teacher shortages: raising pay and fast-tracking teaching assistants and other professionals to the front of the classroom.

Last year, Kansas schools had more than 600 vacant positions. Many of the openings were concentrated in rural areas and the state’s most urban districts.

Low pay has been blamed for much of the trouble attracting and retaining teachers. But education officials believe they have an opportunity to tackle that with the recent boosts to state funding.

Lawmakers have approved multi-year school funding increases amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in response to a long-running lawsuit over school spending. That has given districts a chance to offer teacher raises that could be difficult to fit into school budgets in the past.

“We have an obligation to pay people more,” Education Commissioner Randy Watson said at a State Board of Education meeting this week. “We have an opportunity that the governor and the Legislature together have given us.”

The largest union representing teachers in the state is also urging districts to use the funding increase to pay school staff more.

The Kansas National Education Association said in a statement Thursday that average teacher pay in Kansas is around $49,800. The national union’s rankings show neighboring states range from just over $50,000 in Missouri to $54,500 in Nebraska.

“Teachers are professionals who shouldn’t need to work two, and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet,” KNEA President Mark Farr said.

Schools have been offering raises, but it wasn’t just salaries for teachers that lagged during leaner years.

Mark Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said many districts would also like to restore programs cut during the state budget troubles that followed the national recession and the state income tax cuts passed in 2012.

“Boards recognize the need and desire to increase salaries,” Tallman said. “But that’s not the only claim on those new dollars. All this has to be balanced together.”

With the recession over, the hot economy is posing a new challenge for districts when it comes to hiring and keeping teachers.

Teachers often have job opportunities at schools in other states or completely different industries. The qualities that make a good teacher also make them attractive workers for higher-paying careers.

“If you can communicate with people, if you have patience, if you can solve problems, all of those can be transferable to many other professions,” Tallman said.

Beyond pay, Kansas is utilizing targeted programs to get people into teaching in unconventional ways. Two state-run pilot initiatives have shown success in filling vacancies, licensing 126 new teachers over the last two years. 

Most of those newly-minted teachers are in special education. The others are teaching at the elementary level.

The elementary program allows people with degrees in a field other than education to teach. The special ed initiative makes it easier for paraprofessionals to become fully licensed. Both programs require additional college coursework to get the license.

The state has multiple alternative licensing initiatives that have helped get teachers in the classroom, according to Board of Education Chair Kathy Busch.

“Some of our vacancies are in places where it’s hard for them to get teachers in the first place,” she said. “So sometimes they’re able to almost grow their own teachers right there in their buildings.”

In Garden City, that strategy of growing local teachers looks especially important. Afton Huck, the district’s human resources coordinator, hopes licensing teachers from the area might make them more likely to stay. The school district hasn’t had as much luck when recruiting teachers from out-of-state.

“It’s hard to retain those teachers,” she said. “After they get two or three years of experience they’re ready to go back to their home state.”

The alternative licensing programs are also important because there are simply fewer students graduating with education degrees. The Garden City district has sent representatives to colleges and career fairs in more than a dozen states to recruit teachers.

“Some of the universities that we’ve gone to in the past have totally shut down the programs because they just don’t have enough students interested in the educational program,” said Roy Cessna, public information coordinator for Garden City schools.

The Garden City district had around 30 vacancies at the beginning of last school year and managed to fill about half of them by the midpoint of the year. Huck said they expect to have a similar shortage this year.

The Kansas City school district is using state programs and adding their own additional supports to attract teachers. That district struggles especially to fill special education vacancies, partly because those teachers often need additional education.

“They have to be willing to go beyond that bachelor’s degree,” said Cynthia Fulks, the district's director of recruitment.

The district pays bonuses to teachers who fill slots in high-need areas like math, science and English. There’s also help to pay for advanced degrees or other training. A waiver program allows teachers of other subjects to fill special education slots immediately while taking the additional needed classes.

With teacher shortages becoming the norm, the attitude has shifted from when recruitment was focused on ramping up in advance of the new school year. Now it’s a constant effort.

“It’s never over for us, anymore,” Fulks said. “Recruitment, for us, really has become a year-round type of activity.”

This fall, after districts have finished hiring teachers and started the new school year, the state Board of Education will compile numbers showing whether the two-pronged approach has been effective in cutting the classroom deficit.

“I’m hopeful we’ll see some improvement,” Busch said, “but I don’t think we’re over the hump yet.”

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