As school districts continue to face unprecedented challenges from the COVID pandemic, the Kansas State Board of Education received some good news this week on teacher vacancy and supply.
Although Department of Education officials note that school districts face shifting staffing needs as they move through different stages of reopening or quarantine, during the fall reporting period from Aug. 17 to Sept. 28, the number of vacancies actually dropped compared to last year, from 815 in 2019 to 771.
But KSDE staff say vacancy data this school year may need to be considered an “anomaly” because of the continuing staffing issues caused by COVID. Some State Board members also reported that some school leaders say their districts face even bigger problems finding non-licensed staff, from cooks to bus drivers.
The vacancies reported this year equal about 2 percent of teacher positions in the state. The top two areas for vacancies continue to be Special Education (157) and Elementary Education (142), followed by Science (76), Mathematics (57), and English Language Arts (51).
The major reasons reported for vacancies are either a lack of any applications or applicants not fully qualified based on endorsement area.
Almost half of the vacancies reported in the top five teacher categories are in State Board District 5, which is represented by Jean Clifford, R-Dodge City, and covers about the western third of the state, but only about one-tenth of the population. One reason is that the district includes more school districts than other state board districts, but it also faces more difficulty in recruiting teachers to both isolated rural districts and larger districts in southwest Kansas with larger numbers of high poverty and Limited English Proficiency students.
The vacancy numbers may have been worse if the State Board and Department had not adopted a number of alternative routes to teacher licensure.
The number of Kansas graduates from traditional teacher education programs has continued to decline, from 1,856 in 2014 to 1,441 in 2020, and out-of-state graduates fell from 1,251 to 703. However, the number of restricted licenses for persons from other professions working on a teacher education programs rose from 160 to 409, and the board has issued 274 limited apprenticeship licenses for special education and elementary education and 179 licenses through the Wichita State University TAP innovative license program.
KASB has supported efforts to provide alternative routes to teacher licensure under State Board approval.
State agencies have also provided some short-term relief. The State Board acted this week to increase the number of days substitute teachers may teach during the pandemic. The board voted to declare an emergency and allow any person holding a five-year substitute teaching license OR an emergency substitute teaching license or certificate with a baccalaureate degree to teach through June 30, 2021.
Also, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System has created a waiver for the waiting period and the employer contributions for school district retirees returning to work if there is a bonafide COVID-19 reason that the retiree needs to be hired. The waiver is good for this school year only.
Despite the decline in teacher education graduates, state officials say there is reason to believe the decline in students entering college teacher education programs has bottomed out, and the number may begin increasing in the future.
Increased compensation may also be helping. With additional state funding for school districts, average first–year salaries are reported to have increased this year from $39,217 to $40,471 (3.1 percent), and average salaries for all teachers from $56,530 to $58,878 (4.2 percent).
Overall, the report indicates a fairly stable teacher employment situation. Just over 88 percent of educators remained in the same district; 4.8 percent of teachers changed districts; 3.4 percent of teacher were new graduates and 1.8 percent of teachers entered the field from business, industry or government.
Despite concerns about Kansas losing teachers to other states, Kansas was again a net importer of teachers, with 313 educators reported leaving Kansas to other states and 562 entering from other states.
Another area of focus has been teacher retention. The 10-year retention rate for teachers who reach their third year of teaching has averaged over 90 percent since 2010; rising from under 89 percent in 2011 to nearly 94 percent in 2013 before falling back to 91 percent in 2016. That rate has been basically flat the past four years but ticked up slightly in 2020.
The Legislature increased funding for new teacher mentoring programs in 2018 as a way to help more teachers reach their third year.
This is good news for K-12 education. It indicates that the supply of teachers is better than some feared as the school year began. Concerns about a shortage of qualified educators has been a top issue for school leaders for several years. There is evidence that steps to address that shortage, from more flexible approaches for teacher training and licensure to higher funding for salaries are working.
But that optimism should be tempered by the fact it is still early in a school year threatened by the pandemic. There are deep concerns that educators are facing serious issues of burn-out and more serious mental health issues. These issues could drive more teachers out of the profession as this school year continues and into next year. The State Board, Legislature and local board will have to continue to look at policies that appropriately support teachers and other school staff while trying to improve student learning.