Changes in school employees reflect school priorities and outcomes

Changes in school employees reflect school priorities and outcomes

Kansas school districts have used additional state funding over the past three years to add employees, filling positions lost in previous budget cuts and continuing a 20-year trend of expanding services to help students with changing educational needs reach higher levels of success.

School employee positions were cut by over 2,200 from 2009 to 2017 when funding fell behind inflation. Since 2017, districts have added 4,356 positions, including 1,323 in the current year. More than 80 percent of those positions have been in four areas: teachers and other instructional staff, student support programs, teacher support, and school building administration.

Including these staffing increases since 2017, Kansas schools have added nearly 13,000 positions since 1998, almost 22 percent. That’s almost three times the increase in student headcount enrollment (6.4 percent) between 1998 and 2019. How and where staff were added reflects how districts have shifted priorities to meet changing student needs.

Special education. Districts added 893 special education teachers and 3,621 paraprofessionals and increased audiologists, psychologists and speech pathologists by 263, resulting in special education accounting for 37 percent of the increase in staff. The positions were added as the number of students receiving these services increased by 20 percent.

These changes are driven by a rising number of students with social and emotional needs, increasing efforts to identify students with special needs at earlier ages, higher federal requirements and the need to serve students with autism, dyslexia and other needs.

Early childhood education. Districts added nearly 800 kindergarten teachers and 540 pre-kindergarten teachers since 1998 to expand all-day kindergarten and preschool programs, accounting for over 10 percent of total staff increases.

Educators report increasing numbers of children, especially those from poverty, entering school far behind their peers and struggling to catch up. Research has not only explained why preschool years are critical to brain development and future success, it has also shown that high-quality early education programs can close the gap.

At-Risk students. Over 1,000 “regular education” teachers and 1,200 classroom aides were added since 1998, or 17 percent of total new positions. These teachers have helped lower or maintain low class sizes, which research says can have a positive impact on all students, but particularly at-risk students. This support for general education provides at-risk students opportunities to excel through increased engagement and targeted instruction. Classroom aides support teachers in the classroom by taking over routine tasks, helping manage students and allowing teachers to focus on the highest needs.

The percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced meals has increased from about 33 percent in 2000 to 50 percent during the Great Recession, before dropping back to 47 percent last year. While not all low-income students are at-risk, they are more likely to lag behind academically and need extra help.

Social and emotion needs; health and safety. Districts have added more than 1,100 school nurses, counselors, social workers, social services and attendance staff, and over 100 school resource officers, making up 9 percent of new positions since 1998.

Educators have reported a sharp rise in students with emotional and behavior issues, trauma history, homelessness and other barriers, especially among very young students. Students face more adverse childhood experiences that make it more difficult to socialize with others, control impulses and focus on school, compounded by less access to mental health services. Schools are also confronting an alarming rise in youth suicides, on-going bullying concerns and the recent spike in vaping.

College and Career Readiness. Nearly 700 practical arts, vocational or career technical education teachers – over 5 percent of new positions – were added since 1998 as districts expanded Career Technical Education programs and pathways, often with smaller class sizes than general education courses. These programs offer students not planning to attend a four-year college the chance to prepare for jobs requiring more than a high school diploma. Studies indicate over 70 percent of future jobs in Kansas will require more than high school, with about half of those requiring a four-year degree or more, and half a technical certificate or two-year degree.

Technology. Districts added over 950 technology positions, 7.5 percent of the total, as schools moved into an internet-connected world, increased computer use by staff and provided more devices to students. Each of these changes required more staff support and retraining.

Transportation. Districts added nearly 500 positions, about 4 percent of the total, in transportation. Districts are required to transport students who live more than 2.5 miles from school, and school building closures and district consolidations may have contributed to an increase in those numbers. But many districts have expanded bus service to other students for safety, to promote attendance, and in response to changing neighborhood patterns that are less walkable.

Despite higher enrollment and significantly more employees, not all school district positions increased. Central services and general administration positions were reduced over the past 20 years. Positions in maintenance and operations and food service increased less than student enrollment, partly due to outsourcing and other efficiency efforts.

Impact on student success. These additional positions mean more jobs and income in Kansas communities, but they also have an impact on students. Although some educational outcomes, such as standardized test scores, have declined over the past decade – when school funding was not keeping up with inflation – long term educational attainment has increased.

While educating more low-income and special education students, since 2005 the percent of Kansans aged 18-24 who have completed high school or more increased from 84.3 to 89.4 percent; the percent who have any postsecondary education or credits increased from 51.9 percent to 59.2 percent; and those completing a four-year degree by age 24 increased from 9.7 to 11.1 percent – each a record high.

Kansas graduation rates are at an all-time high, with the percentage of students who graduate “on time” within four years of their freshman year increasing from 80.7 percent in 2010 to 87.3 percent in 2018. Low-income students, students with disabilities and many minority groups still lag behind but have recorded improvement. The number of students completing technical certificates, concurrent enrollment credits and participating in postsecondary education within two years of graduation have all increased. Each additional education credential earned raises average income and reduces poverty and unemployment.

That’s evidence that the investment in more school district employees is paying off for students as they enter adulthood.