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Kansas and Missouri teachers are quitting over lack of pay and respect. It’s a nationwide problem

 Missouri ranks 50th in the country in starting pay for teachers, which is just one factor that contributes to the teacher shortage in our state.
Missouri ranks 50th in the country in starting pay for teachers, which is just one factor that contributes to the teacher shortage in our state.

The Government Accountability Office has released a report analyzing the nationwide teacher shortage in the US. The report lists low pay and a growing negative perception of teachers as the top reasons for dropping retention rates within the profession.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been an increase in teachers leaving the profession. Even after restrictions in the classroom eased nationwide, the problem likely to go away.

In a survey conducted by the GAO in January of 2022, 25 percent of teachers said they are considering quitting.

According to the report released by the GAO on Tuesday morning, COVID isn’t the main reason the country is seeing few new teachers entering the workforce and more veteran educators leaving it.

The report shows that the growing negative perceptions of the profession and low salaries for teachers are the two biggest factors contributing to more educators leaving.

“Despite the initial public display of gratitude for teachers [during the pandemic], we later saw a widespread lack of support,” GAO Education Director Jacqueline Nowicki said in a podcast about the report. “Teachers told us that they felt that their concerns for their well-being were disregarded both before and throughout the pandemic.”

Educators in both Kansas and Missouri have been raising the same concerns. At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Kansas had more than 1,400 open teaching positions and one in four Missouri school districts moved to a 4-day school week due to shortages.

Both states are attempting to raise teacher salaries in an effort to encourage teachers to stay with their schools.

Some Kansas schools have begun offering several financial incentives, such as sign-on bonuses and continued pension benefits after retirement, in an effort to attract new and retired teachers to teach within the district.

In Missouri, a state commission is recommending that teachers’ salaries be raised by $13,000 in order to become more competitive in attracting new teachers to the state, which currently offers the second-lowest starting salary for teachers in the country.

“How do you have a parent conference in the checkout line at a grocery store where someone has a second job?” said Kansas National Education Association Communications Director Marcus Baltzell. “They have to have one because [their salaries] can’t keep up with rising costs.”

While low salaries have long been the biggest reason for the growing shortage, the issue has been eclipsed in recent years, according to the report, by the growing negative opinions of teachers displayed in media and politics.

“They are seeing so much negativity coming from the media about education, and that is driving people away,” Nowicki said. “We also heard that many of these challenges are even worse for teachers of color.”

According to the report, the current teacher workforce in the US is overwhelmingly white and female, which has led to difficulties for students and teachers of color.

Teachers in Kansas and Missouri have said they often feel that they are being caught in a culture war perpetuated by local and state lawmakers. Lawmakers in both states have proposed legislation, commonly known as a “parents’ bill of rights”, that would allow for greater surveillance over teachers in their classrooms.

“Unfortunately, what we have in Kansas is a lot of misinformation, attacking the [teaching] profession, attacking public schools,” Baltzell said. “Why would we expect any educator to feel like they are supported?”

The GAO listed two recommendations to the US Department of Education in its report. One is directed at addressing teacher pay and the other asks the Secretary of Education to build on the department's efforts to raise public awareness about the value of teachers.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Zach Perez