Sunday, September 8, 2013

Kansas faces looming teacher shortage

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

For the past several years, Kansas education officials have been poring over a set of numbers, almost like worried baseball fans watching their team fade out of contention in a pennant race.

The numbers are in an obscure document called the "licensed personnel report," and it breaks out, in excruciating detail, all the demographic data about the state's K-12 education workforce.

And those numbers do not show a promising trend. This year, according to the latest version of the report that was delivered to the Kansas State Board of Education in August, 31 percent of all the people employed as teachers in public schools are age 50 or over.

That means they already have, or soon will have, enough points in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to retire.

Officials also worry that if those teachers all retire as soon as they're eligible, there won't be nearly enough new teachers coming out of colleges and universities to take their place.

"Are we on the cusp of something, as far as a real, real need?" Scott Myers, head of the state's teacher licensure division, asked rhetorically. "As the baby-boomers retire, there are not as many people in the workforce."

State officials, including Kansas lawmakers, have been fretting about those numbers for several years. But oddly, the concern eased temporarily during the last three or four years as the Great Recession actually helped delay the inevitable.

"The recession has been a double-edged sword," Myers said. "Actually, it helped with the teacher shortage in that, unfortunately, districts have had to eliminate positions, so (schools) just weren't looking for as many people. And then the other part is, people are fearful about retiring because who knows what's going to happen with the stock market? So people just work longer."

In Lawrence, local school officials say the demographic trends haven't presented a problem, at least so far.

"Fortunately, here in Lawrence, there are always people who want to work and live in Lawrence, so we haven't experienced what some districts have experienced," said Anna Stubblefield, director of human resources for the Lawrence school district.

Last spring, the Lawrence district had 33 certified teachers retire, but it hired 121 new teachers to fill those and other open positions.

At the start of this school year, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said, the district had only eight positions remaining open, and most of those were in special education, a commonly hard-to-fill area where the district is almost always accepting applications.

"As I've gone out to recruit, I find people wherever I go who have some sort of connection to Lawrence and are always willing to come to Lawrence," Stubblefield said.

But as the nation's economy slowly recovers, and those baby-boomer teachers continue to get older, Myers said there will eventually be a day of reckoning, at least for other parts of Kansas.

In recent years, he noted, the state has taken measures to address the shortage. For example, lawmakers have eased rules about KPERS eligibility to make it easier for districts to hire teachers who previously retired from another district.

The state has also made it easier for people from other professions to switch careers by allowing people with degrees in math, science or other subject areas to teach at the secondary level while going back to college to earn a master's degree in education.

But Myers said he believes there is another problem that deters people from teaching that the state needs to address: the relatively low salaries teachers earn compared to other professionals.

"I think they need to be paid as a true profession, and treated as a true profession, and all the things that go along with that," Myers said.