Kansas City, Mo. For the fourth year in a row, there were fewer unfilled teaching positions in Kansas school districts at the start of the school year.
That's good and bad news, state officials said. Good, because it's a signal that efforts to train special education teachers and to lure teachers to urban districts are working. Bad, because the state's budget struggles and the general economic downturn have kept numbers of unfilled positions artificially low.
Budget cuts have prompted several districts to slash teaching positions, leaving fewer jobs to go unfilled. And education graduates who might have sought jobs in the business world while the economy boomed now are looking for teaching jobs.
Christy Levings, president of the Kansas chapter of the National Education Assn., a major teacher's union, and others were predicting the exact opposite trend three years ago when 512 unfilled teaching positions were reported in the state.
Levings said then the situation was likely to worsen as more teachers neared retirement. But instead, the number of unfilled positions shrunk to this fall's 351 vacancies, as of Aug. 1.
Levings blames the drop on budget problems that have prompted districts to cut jobs. The union said between 700 and 800 certified positions -- such as teachers and school counselors -- were eliminated during the last school year. The state's education department put the figure at around 630.
Levings said she also has seen more experienced workers on the market in recent months, and that's made it easier for school districts to fill openings.
Martha Gage, director of teacher education and licensure for the state education department, said it was possible some teachers were delaying retirement because the market has battered their investments.
Gage said her office handled a flood of applications in June from people seeking to renew and apply for teaching certificates. On a normal June day, she said, the office might receive 50 to 75 applications. But for several days running this June, the office received more than 500 applications.
Though the poor economy gets much of the credit, oddly enough, for the reduction in vacancies, she said colleges of education have taken steps to address the need. Programs to train special education teachers -- an often hard-to-fill area -- were added at Southwestern College in Winfield and at a consortium of three colleges in northeast Kansas. The number of special education openings has dropped to 101 openings this fall from 155 in fall 2000.
Districts themselves have worked to reduce vacancies. The Kansas City, Kan., school district knew it had to do something after it started classes two years ago with 86 vacancies.
"We decided we can't do this to kids," Superintendent Ray Daniel said.
Among the things the district tried, Daniel said, an alternative certification program helped the most. Now in its third year, the program allowed people with degrees in fields outside education to teach as they worked toward earning an education degree.
With the help of the alternative certification program and the economic downturn, the number of unfilled positions has dropped steadily to about a dozen last year and just five this year.
"I think the economy," Daniel said, "has helped increase the number of people looking at teaching as a field of employment."