GUEST COLUMN, David Dorsey, Kansas Policy Institute
It wouldn’t be a new school year without the news media running another story that there is a teacher shortage. The Kansas City Star went as far as sounding it at crisis level by headlining a story that the shortage of teachers in the Kansas City area “forces … more unqualified teachers in the classrooms.”
The truth is, according to KSDE data, there was a vacancy rate of about 1.7 percent in 2019 out of 35,000 total teachers in Kansas. These aren’t the kind of numbers that create a major concern across the state but instead, point to specific issues within the state and teaching profession. As a state-wide task force found three years ago, vacancies tend to be a function of forces like geography and an inadequate compensation structure.
Not much can be done about the impact of geography. It’s always going to be difficult for rural areas, especially those in western Kansas, to attract and maintain quality teachers.
However, it is completely within the power of local school boards to change the bedrock of the teacher salary structure – the matrix system. Simply put, if a district cannot find teachers in specialty areas like math, science and special education, offer them more money. Unfortunately, given the union-driven, egalitarian, non-controversial approach the matrix system allows, it is unlikely school districts will be willing to tackle the idea of differential pay – at least in the short run.
The Star article quotes KASB’s Mark Tallman as saying: “Teaching simply pays less than it used to.” That is a puzzling condition given the rapid growth in per-pupil spending over the last quarter-century. Dr. Ben Scafidi, senior fellow at edChoice presents this graphic that illustrates the disconnect among per-pupil spending, teacher pay, student population and staffing changes in Kansas.
The picture tells the story. While per-pupil spending and staffing were soaring, teacher pay decreased when adjusted for inflation. Why? That’s a question for local school boards to answer since in Kansas it is the district that sets salaries. Let’s say that again: local boards of education set salaries, NOT the Legislature or any other statewide body. No doubt the salary matrix system has kept overall salaries down.
Another solution is to tap the power of the internet and utilize more on-line classes when a classroom teacher is not attainable. Students can still get a quality teacher, even if he or she isn’t physically located in the room. If it’s good enough for college, it’s a viable alternative for K-12.
Additionally, it is incumbent upon districts to get creative in crafting long-term solutions. A district in Missouri is offering college scholarships to students who commit to teaching in that district after they become licensed. Perhaps Kansas districts could use some of the Gannon windfall to mirror a similar initiative.
It’s an unfortunate reality that the teaching profession is less attractive than it was when I became a teacher in the mid-90s. Fewer parents want their kids to become teachers and fewer college students are seeking education degrees. What hasn’t changed, however, is the necessity of education being student-centered. In other words, the needs of the student outweigh the needs of the teacher. As I experienced first-hand, the biggest impact on the quality of a student’s education is the quality of the teacher. That remains the number one priority of those who manage school districts, no matter what form or shape that takes.