Kansas' teacher shortage is growing worse.
The latest numbers from the Kansas State Department of Education for fall 2018 show 612 teaching positions remain unfilled by a qualified teacher. That's up from the 513 vacant positions from the same time last year.
According to the state, one possible explanation for the shortage is that schools have become less reluctant to report their vacancies.
"We might actually have a better count this year than we've had in the past," said Mischel Miller, the director of teacher licensure and accrediation at KSDE.
However, that leaves open the possibility that there are more open positions that remain unreported.
Beyond the total number of vacancies, the update delivered to the Kansas State Board of Education last week provided further detail about what the current teacher vacancy issue looks like.
Concentrated In Certain Areas
Open teaching positions are a small percentage compared to those that are actually filled, but those vacant jobs are not spread evenly across the state.
A map of vacancies from fall 2017 shows that that a disproportionate number of vacancies are concentrated in certain areas, including southwestern Kansas.
According to the state, western Kansas continue to have the biggest issue with vacancies.
"We realize that our hotbed issue is how to fully staff western Kansas rural schools," Mischel said.
The Kansas Association of Schools Boards says a lot of the districts struggling with open positions are those with poorer students.
"Disadvantaged kids — kids coming out of poverty situations — are precisely the students that need good teachers the most," said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. "Yet it's often those districts that struggle to find them."
The shortage is also concentrated in certain teaching fields, with special education and elementary struggling the most.
Lack Of Qualified Candidates
The debate over school funding extends to nearly all aspects of K-12 education, including hiring teachers.
But a survey of schools found that that the main reason superintendents said positions remained unfilled by a qualified teacher was not their current budget, but a lack of applicants.
About seven out of 10 vacant positions remained so because there were either no applicants or the applicants that did apply did not meet the state standards.
Kansas' low unemployment numbers could also be causing a shortage of candidates.
"When the overall economy is good and there's jobs and wages generally rising, that tends to make teacher shortages worse," Tallman said. "There's more competition."
Teacher advocates did expect the increased state funding provided by the state Legislature would have led to teacher salary increases and, consequently, more applicants. And while salaries did increase in some districts, many of those increase were not negotiated and finalized until after the school year had begun. Also, according to Tallman, growth in teacher pay still trails behind other occupations.
"Nationally, teachers' salaries have not kept up with salaries for other similarly educated workers," Tallman said. "And Kansas has done worse."
Growth In New Teaching Licenses Is Flat
The battle over school funding in Kansas that has stretched well past a decade has hurt the image of the teaching profession, according to some educators.
"I think a lot of the reason why people are not going into the profession is because there's kind of been this negative cloud hanging over public education,” said Shannon Krysl, Wichita Public Schools' chief human resources officer.
The district did manage to cut its shortage in half compared to last year, but more than 50 vacancies remain.
A negative perception of teaching could be why there has been little growth in first-time teaching licenses in the state. In fact, fewer licenses were given to recent graduates in 2018 than the previous year.
The lack of growth in newly graduated and licensed teachers comes back to pay, according to Marcus Baltzell, the director of communications for the Kansas National Educators Association.
"If you want to be a teacher in Kansas, you should expect there will be long periods where you may have difficulty making ends meet," Baltzell said.
The state put into place two new pilot programs early this year to quickly qualify teachers for the classroom, though even those accelerated programs take time to make an impact and are not counted in the number of first-time teaching licenses.
The committee investigating the teacher shortage for the Kansas State Department of Education did discover that there are more teachers moving to Kansas than are leaving. This is possibly due to Kansas having better pay than neighboring Oklahoma, which has seen strikes from teachers because of their salaries. Yet the number of licenses granted to out-of-state teachers in Kansas has remained virtually flat.
Schools Are Relying More On Waivers To Hire Unqualified Teachers
One option for schools looking to mitigate the damage of the shortage is to allow unqualified teachers into the classroom. And the growing shortage has led to more restricted licenses being issued, which allows students switching careers to teach before they are fully qualified.
There has also been an increase in waivers letting teachers cover disciplines where they are not qualified. The majority of these waivers are for special education, which is also the area that has the most vacancies.
"Simply just wiping out licensure requirements and certification has tremendous impact on students," said Marcus Baltzell, the director of communications for the Kansas National Educators Association.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen contributed to this story.
Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.