by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service
Children who come from low-income families, have disabilities, aren’t white or don’t speak English at home appear to be disproportionately paying the price of Kansas’ teacher shortage, according to an analysis by the Kansas News Service.
Particularly affected are Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City — southwest Kansas towns where most of the students come from low-income families and more than half face the added challenge of building math, literacy and other skills while acquiring English as a second language.
The state’s largest school district, Wichita Public Schools — another predominantly non-white district where three-fourths of the students come from low-income families — is struggling too, reporting nearly 80 unfilled positions as of early this school year.
“It does not lend itself to a fully functioning democracy to not have a strong public education system,” said Steve Wentz, president of the Wichita teachers union. “At some level, money and race is obviously an issue here that people don’t want to talk about.”
Debbie Mercer, dean of education at Kansas State University, said the disproportionate effect of teacher shortages on students in demographic groups that face academic achievement gaps is cause for concern.
“That’s the heart of this struggle,” Mercer said.
About 110 of the 443 teacher and related vacancies reported statewide this school year for prekindergarten through 12th grade involved educating children who have disabilities or are learning English as a second language.
The dearth of special education teachers in particular has long been a problem.
“If we look at special education,” Mercer said, “we’ve known that’s been the No. 1 area of need for years.”
The Kansas News Service obtained a breakdown of this year’s school vacancies through a data request to the Kansas State Department of Education. The list includes unfilled positions for teachers and some other personnel, such as counselors and psychologists.
Nearly half of vacancies at public school districts were concentrated in five districts where upwards of 70 or 80 percent of students come from low-income families:
• Wichita USD 259, 79 vacancies (compared to about 4,300 total certified staff last year).
• Garden City USD 457, 42 vacancies (about 615 total certified staff last year).
• Liberal USD 480, 29 vacancies (380 total certified staff last year).
• Kansas City, Kansas USD 500, 29 vacancies (2,135 total certified staff last year).
• Dodge City USD 443, 22 vacancies (about 470 total certified staff last year).
David Smith, communications director for Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, said the district finds it challenging to attract qualified job candidates and compete with teacher salaries in wealthier areas of the Kansas City metro, making it harder to close achievement gaps.
“It’s one of the things we struggle with and why we fight so hard for equity,” he said. “If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, then the resources need to be in the places where it’s possible to do that.”
Kansas has a goal of significantly boosting math and reading achievement and graduation rates for traditionally disadvantaged and underserved student groups with lower outcomes on those measures —such as black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, students from low-income families and English language learners. The state told the federal government this fall that it wants to close those gaps by 2030.
At the five higher-poverty districts, non-white students make up the majority, with Hispanic and black students being the largest ethnic and racial groups. Sixty-four percent of children in the Liberal district are learning English as a second language, as are 58 percent in Dodge City and 49 percent in Garden City.
“What you’re experiencing is being experienced across the country,” said Patricia Gandara, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. “We’ve always had a shortage of highly qualified teachers in the lowest-income schools.”
Gandara said nationwide, districts with more low-income and minority students are more likely to lack resources critical to successful schools.
Bearing the brunt
The Kansas education department began collecting more detailed information on vacancies in the past few years to investigate anecdotal reports that applicant pools were dwindling.
The list of 2017-18 vacancies backs that impression — as well as conclusions last year by a special task force that a relatively small number of urban or remote southwest Kansas school districts are bearing the brunt of the problem. Statewide, 99 percent of teaching jobs are filled.
All but one of Kansas’ public school districts reported their vacancies to the education department this year, as did some private schools and interdistrict centers or similar entities that allow schools to share staff.
Geography likely compounds the problem. Sally Cauble, a Republican who represents 40 western Kansas counties on the Kansas State Board of Education, said districts struggle to attract candidates to the more sparsely populated half of the state, and the implications worry her.
“I believe that children are the future of your state,” Cauble said. “They’re your future workers, your future leaders.”
Schools often fill vacancies with long-term substitutes or teachers certified to teach other subjects, or redistribute students, resulting in larger class sizes. This spring, districts will report to the state how they dealt with this fall’s vacant positions.
The shortage also has implications for Kansas’ aspirations to bolster math and science education amid a national push to better prepare students for college and careers. This fall Kansas middle and high schools came up short about 70 math and science teachers.
“Literacy in all those fields for all people is critically important,” said Steve Case, who leads efforts at the University of Kansas to prepare more math and science teachers. “It drives our economic engine.”
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson convened the 2016 task force on teacher supply. The panel suggested factors contributing to the situation could include low pay compared to the private sector, lack of mentoring for early-career teachers, low public esteem for the profession and Kansas’ lack of teacher job protections since 2014.
The Kansas State Department of Education doesn’t yet have complete figures on teacher pay for this school year but estimates that it rose more than 4 percent if benefits such as health insurance are included. The increase came amid a boost in state funding for public schools, triggered by pressure from the Kansas Supreme Court.
Over the past several years, Kansas has seen a drop in college students pursuing and completing studies in education, as has the nation.
Though Kansas schools are still filling 99 percent of their instructional jobs, some superintendents across the state say the number of applicants has shrunk, leaving them fewer choices.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.