Kansas school superintendent Alan Cunningham has been involved with hiring teachers for the past 35 years. In that time, he has never had a harder time filling positions than this year.
Qualified applicants for job openings in elementary schools or physical education “used to be a dime a dozen,” Cunningham said. Now Cunningham’s school district, Dodge City School District, is starting the school year with teachers in those positions who are not fully certified.
“We’ve had to go to substitute teachers,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham’s predicament is one superintendents throughout his state are facing. In Kansas, where teacher pay is low and schools are underfunded, hundreds of teaching positions throughout the state are still vacant just a few weeks before the start of the school year.
“This is the first year we’ve experienced a shortage as significantly as we are this year,” said Cunningham, referring specifically to his district. “We’ve had to combine some classrooms where we weren’t able to find a teacher and made class sizes significantly higher than we’d like them to be.”
Considering the conditions facing educators in Kansas, it is not an unlikely spot for a teacher shortage. Teachers in Kansas have some of the lowest average pay in the country. In 2014, the legislature voted to cut back on job protections for teachers that gave them certain due process rights if they faced dismissal. In June 2015, a three-judge district court panel said that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional, in a ruling that was soon kicked up to the state Supreme Court. As a result of this funding system and pervasive tax cuts throughout the state that led to extreme revenue losses, several districts throughout the state had to end the 2014-2015 school year early because they did not have the money to stay open.
Capitalizing on the unrest among teachers, one school district in the neighboring state of Missouri even put up billboards in Kansas attempting to recruit dissatisfied teachers. Amid all this, an aging workforce has led to an increase in teacher retirements.
Data from the state department of education shows that 2,326 educators retired after the 2014-2015 school year, compared to 1,260 in the 2011-2012 school year. Last year, 740 teachers decided to leave the profession and 654 teachers decided to leave the state; those numbers for 2011-2012 were 491 and 399 respectively.
As of Thursday evening, there were over 450 teaching and non-teaching school jobs posted on the website for the Kansas Education Employment Board.
"This is more than double where we usually sit at this time of year," Julie Wilson, a KEEB coordinator, told Kansas outlet KCUR in late July.
Amid what some see as attempts to de-professionalize teaching -- in February a bill passed the state Senate that would make it easier to jail teachers for teaching materials deemed offensive, while another new program lifts teacher licensure requirements in certain districts -- some superintendents say teacher morale is at an all-time low.
“I find it increasingly difficult to convince young people that education is a profession worth considering, and I have some veterans who think about leaving,” said Tim Hallacy, superintendent of Silver Lake Schools. “In the next three years I think we’ll have maybe the worst teacher shortage in the country -- I think most of that is self-inflicted.”
Teachers are being forced to do more with less, and not necessarily getting appreciated for it, said Dean Katt, superintendent of Hays Public Schools.
“Teachers are working many more hours, much harder. They’re doing it on their own and don’t have the support we should be giving them,” said Katt.
He continued, “[They face] constant bashing from the governor and legislature, [who] in my opinion are trying to privatize education and just destroy it.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding the teacher shortage.
For Cunningham, making more with less means having substitute teachers fill the role of full-time classroom teachers. If he is not able to find quality applicants to replace these substitutes, he may have substitutes taking over classrooms for the whole year, even though the state only allows substitutes to remain on the same assignment for up to 90 days.
“If they’re doing a good job for us, we will deal with whatever consequence may come,” Cunningham said.