By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
In his 26 years at Meade Unified School District 226, a 400-student district southwest of Dodge City, Superintendent Kenneth Harshberger has watched the educational landscape change.
Teachers are harder to recruit — even for elementary jobs, which were traditionally easier to fill.
“The first time I tried to hire an elementary teacher 25, 26 years ago, we had over 100 applicants,” he recalled. “Now I can’t get five applicants.”
While there likely are numerous reasons behind that change, a new national report on rural teacher pay in the 50 states shows Kansas ranks lowest. That report follows another Kansas-specific study noting evidence of a teacher shortage in some rural areas of the state, particularly in the southwest corner.
Ken Weaver, dean of the Teachers College at Emporia State University, co-authored an analysis of the teacher shortage situation in Kansas that was released last year. He thinks the newly released national report on teacher pay may shed light on one of the reasons for the Kansas shortage.
“I do think that’s an important piece of the puzzle,” he said. “The challenge is, how does that piece of the puzzle kind of make it out there, into the minds and into the hearts of policymakers and decision-makers?”
The national compilation by the Rural School and Community Trust draws on 2012 information that schools reported to the federal government — total instructional salaries divided by the number of instructional staff in each district. The trust uses this calculation as a stand-in for teacher pay.
At rural schools in Kansas, this works out to about $40,900, compared to a national average of just under $57,800. Missouri came in second-lowest around $44,100.
The trust used the federal government’s definition of rural school districts. Nationally, nearly 20 percent of public school students attend rural schools. In Kansas, the figure is a little higher.
The trust’s report does not adjust for cost of living differences among rural areas in different regions of the country.
Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, noted other potential caveats about the national report. It is possible, for example, that pay varies because some states tend to employ teachers with more experience or higher educational attainment.
In the Meade district, Harshbarger has become creative in finding teachers. Last year district officials worked with a college for the first time on an arrangement to hire a student as a full-fledged teacher — albeit with supervision.
And with some college students landing teaching job offers before graduation, they’ve begun calling universities.
“I will call K-State or Wichita State and ask for the heads of the departments and say, ‘Can you give me the names of any kids?’” Harshberger said. “And a lot of times they won’t give it to us unless they’ve been given permission. And I say, ‘Well, can you ask those kids if we can have permission to contact them?’”
The teacher shortage report that Weaver and others authored found 109 unfilled teaching jobs in southwest Kansas in the 2015-16 school year. Those jobs remained vacant at least through the first half of the academic year and into the spring, when tallies were finalized.
The report, which found teachers were migrating from rural areas to more populated ones, corroborated anecdotes of shortages that had prompted warnings from top Kansas education officials in recent years.
Nationally, teachers earn more in larger towns, suburbs and cities than rural areas.
The trust’s report found rural salary spending per instructional staff lagged nearly $2,000 behind towns and more than $10,000 behind suburban and urban districts, though those figures don’t factor in cost of living.
A decade-old U.S. Department of Education analysis that did do so found rural teacher pay lagged $1,000 to $2,900 behind cities, towns and suburbs after adjusting for this difference.
‘Several areas of concern’
The authors of last year’s report on Kansas teacher vacancies suggested further monitoring and investigation to explore causes and solutions. But they suspected pay as a factor.
“The low salaries are one of several areas of concern and they need to be addressed,” Weaver said.
In Meade, starting pay for a teacher straight out of college is around $36,000.
It’s unclear how this compares to the statewide average. The Kansas State Department of Education doesn’t track starting pay.
But the Kansas Association of School Boards conducts a voluntary annual survey. For 2016-17, 220 of 286 school districts reported their starting salaries to the association. The average among these was about $34,700.
District budgets vary, as do local spending priorities, which are determined by school boards.
Kismet-Plains USD 483, a 700-student district next to Meade, offers beginning teachers $42,000 a year.
“We have to pay well just to attract folks,” Superintendent Elton Argo said, adding that the area lacks amenities that draw many applicants to larger towns, cities or suburbs.
The 540-square-mile district does not have a dentist or optometrist, he said, and a physician comes to the area only a few days a week. Outdoor opportunities like fishing and hunting abound, but there’s not a movie theater or bowling alley.
“Geography will always be a complication,” he said.
Like Harshberger, Argo, who has been superintendent in Kismet-Plains for 11 years, said the traditional paths to finding teachers are less fruitful than they once were.
“Job fairs — we still attend some of those, but it’s kind of a waste of our time,” Argo said. “There aren’t many applicants there.”
Fewer future teachers
Secondary teaching positions and special education jobs are particularly difficult to fill, superintendents say.
Their concerns come amid a drop in students preparing to become teachers.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 2,500 fewer people enrolled in teacher preparatory programs in Kansas in 2015 compared to four years earlier. The number of people completing such programs slid by about 460 over the same period.
State universities and the Kansas State Board of Education are responding with efforts ranging from changes to teacher certification requirements to new career-transition programs.
Just two examples: Kansas State University has a new one-year online master’s degree for aspiring elementary teachers who didn’t major in education at college and Emporia State has received approval from the Kansas Board of Regents for such a program, too.
But superintendents, university faculty and education officials alike have suggested the teaching field has become less attractive, not just because many other jobs offer better pay and health insurance, but because of a years-long fight over state aid to schools, lawmakers’ decision to strip teacher tenure from Kansas statute and other factors. The picture they paint is one of low morale.
In Meade, Harshberger said, summer school programs disappeared amid years of budget cuts, purchases of equipment and supplies like textbooks slowed, individual teachers took on more duties at work and pay stagnated.
“They know they’re not in it for the money. None of us are in it for the money — we’re in it because we love kids,” he said. “But I’ve seen a lot of dismay, particularly in the last seven years, that we’ve been hardly able to put any money in schools.”
Weaver, who often speaks with families of students considering an education major, put it this way: Though he can promise parents that their children will have jobs to choose from upon graduation, he can’t deflect their concerns about compensation.
“Moms and dads are saying truthfully, ‘We love our child. We want the best for our child, but we cannot support our child going into teaching as a career,’” he said.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of kcur.org, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.