Teaching vacancies on the rise in Kansas

photo by: Richard Gwin

A Lawrence kindergarten teacher sets up her classroom in this file photo from August 2008.

TOPEKA — Kansas public school districts are finding it harder to fill vacant teaching positions this year, despite the fact that increased funding has allowed many districts to offer higher salaries, according to a report released this week by the Kansas State Department of Education.

According to the report, 612 teaching positions were vacant this fall. That’s an increase of 19 percent from the same time last year.

“Every year we have vacancies, but it’s getting more and more and more challenging to get people to apply for those,” Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said during an interview.

Special education positions made up the largest share of those vacancies, the report indicated. That was followed by positions in elementary education, English language arts, science and math.

The report also noted that of the 10 Kansas State Board of Education districts, the largest concentration of vacant positions was in the 5th District, which includes the bulk of western Kansas. That area accounted for 21 percent of all the vacancies.

Those findings did not surprise Mark Tallman, director of advocacy and communications for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“Historically, those vacancies tend to be clustered in certain fields and certain parts of the state,” he said in an interview. He said special education, math and science teaching positions have always been difficult to fill, as are positions in remote, sparsely populated areas of the state and areas with high poverty rates.

But the Lawrence school district has not been immune to the problem either; of the 7.5 vacant positions it reported this fall, five are for special education teachers.

“Special ed positions are difficult to fill,” Kevin Harrell, the district’s executive director of student services and special education, said in an interview

He said some of the most difficult positions to fill were for classrooms set aside for specific kinds of students with special needs, such as children with severe behavioral disorders.

“It takes a special person,” Harrell said. “We have many people who are special-education certified, but some of those are more difficult to fill.”

Although teacher shortages have existed for years in certain disciplines, and certain areas of the state, Kansas officials said they could not pinpoint a single explanation for the recent growth in the number of vacancies.

One possible explanation, they said, is that schools are facing the same tight labor market that has made it difficult for employers throughout the state to find qualified applicants, even as salaries are starting to rise.

“Almost invariably, as the economy overall gets better, the teacher shortage gets worse,” Tallman said.

Another theory is that during the years of persistent state budget shortfalls following the Great Recession and the tax cuts of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, average teacher salaries in the state stagnated, which may have discouraged many young people going into college from pursuing careers as teachers.

“I don’t have the data, but what I’ve heard from universities is that this senior class of college graduates going into the education field is one of the smallest,” Neuenswander said.

“I think the economy of the last eight to 10 years of no raises drew a lot of people that normally would have gone into the profession to choose something else,” he said.

The report, which was delivered to the Kansas State Board of Education earlier this week, did offer some positive numbers about Kansas teachers.

For one, it noted that Kansas is doing better at retaining young teachers. Over the past 10 years, the number of new teachers who stay in the profession after their third year of teaching has risen from less than 82 percent in 2009 to roughly 91 percent this year.

It also noted that Kansas is not losing large numbers of teachers to other states. Over the past year, the report indicated, 248 teachers reported moving out of Kansas while 568 teachers came to Kansas from other states.

Neuenswander said that while districts are now able to offer higher salaries, which officials hope will encourage more young people coming out of high school to pursue careers in education, it will take another four to five years for those students to earn their degrees and start applying for teaching jobs.


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