Wichita Public School teachers received more than a 3.5% increase in salary. In Topeka, the increase was nearly 8%, the district’s largest in 26 years.

Despite these raises, school districts across Kansas are still finding it difficult to fill vacant positions.

According to a report the Kansas State Board of Education received earlier this month, for fall 2018, Kansas schools have 612 vacant teaching positions. That number reflects an increase of nearly 100 positions from fall 2017.

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 disproportionate number of vacancies are concentrated in certain areas, including southwestern Kansas.

“We realize that our hotbed issue is how to fully staff western Kansas rural schools,” said Mischel Miller, the director of teacher licensure and accreditation at KSDE.

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. Also, positions are difficult to fill in math, science, and English language arts.

Lack of Qualified Candidates

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 teacher salary increases would have led to more applicants. That increase in pay helped improve Kansas’ rankings for teacher compensation to 40th out of 50 states in 2018.

Normally, you wouldn’t be excited about 40th, except we are moving in the right direction,” said Craig Neuenswander, the school finance team director at the Kansas State Department of Education.

Also, 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 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.

– 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. Celia Llopis-Jepsen contributed to this story.

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