Kansas educators share personal insights in quest to reverse statewide teacher shortage

[Kansas Reflector] Kansas educators share personal insights in quest to reverse statewide teacher shortage

TOPEKA — Byron Lewis was a student at Topeka High School when allowed to use study hall to read to kindergartners at his old elementary school.

It was the first time Lewis — now an elementary school teacher in the Turner district — thought a career in education could be in his future. He earned an education degree at Kansas State University and was introduced to programs that urge men of color to enter the profession. Statewide, it’s just not enough. Entering the fall 2022 academic year, there were an estimated 1,500 teacher vacancies in Kansas.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Lewis said during a panel discussion Monday sponsored by Kansas State’s College of Education at the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers.

Debbie Mercer, dean of education at K-State, said it was “absolutely critical” educators win the rhetorical battle to persuade young people that education was a worthy career path and teaching a type of public service valued by a cross-section of society. Gone are the days when every education school graduate competed against dozens of other applicants for jobs, she said.

“We’ve seen a shift,” Mercer said. “There have been a variety of reasons. Teaching is hard work. It’s hard emotionally and it’s hard intellectually. Teachers need a great deal of grit.”

The KSU dean, however, said people dedicated to teaching could be part of something larger than themselves: “There is nothing better.”

Mercer said the foundation of public education had been shaken by ideological attacks, complaints from legislators about the cost of state funding to K-12 education, demise of teacher tenure and concern about deficient salaries.

In the current 2023 session of the Kansas Legislature, the Republican-led House and Senate also plan to debate bills driving tax dollars to private schools with voucher-like tax incentives and “scholarship” programs, imposing a parental bill of rights to influence curriculum and library holdings, and mandates that transgender students participate in sports activities based on gender at birth.

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka public schools, said societal challenges meant teachers could play a life-changing role in the lives of students. She said her parents were active in the civil rights movement and education was a central component of that ongoing work.

“For me,” she said, “moving into education was a natural next step to continue to advocate for equality across the board.”

Lewis, who taught in Topeka before moving to the Kansas City, Kansas area, said Kansas lawmakers ought to look closely at proposals for compensation of financially strapped student teachers as they completed requirements for a bachelor’s degree in education.

A task force of educators affiliated with Kansas Board of Regents universities suggested the Legislature appropriate $9 million annually to pay 1,800 student teachers an average of $5,000. The state would pay for 75% of the program and local districts would pick up 25%.

In addition, the task force recommended the state expand a $2.8 million teacher scholarship program requiring educators to work in an underserved area.

Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said the Kansas Board of Education ought to address the teacher shortage by approving participation in an interstate compact allowing out-of-state teachers to more easily transition to vacancies in Kansas. The compact would enable Kansas school districts to recognize teacher licenses from other states.

“The agreement is legally binding and proposes to remove some licensure and assessment requirements for teachers to receive Kansas licenses,” Claeys said. “Teachers wishing to teach in another state would still need to meet all requirements to receive a license in their home state, such as a full bachelor’s degree. Each candidate would also undergo the customary background check, and any disciplinary action taken against them would be considered.”