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Kentucky’s worsening teacher shortage requires an ‘across the pipeline’ approach, officials say

Who will teach them? In the 2023 school year, more than 1 in 10 teachers did not return to teaching in Kentucky, according to the Office of Education Accountability.
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Kentucky Lantern
Who will teach them? In the 2023 school year, more than 1 in 10 teachers did not return to teaching in Kentucky, according to the Office of Education Accountability.

‘Acute’ shortage of bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, substitute teachers also reported

As more new teachers leave the profession, Kentucky’s teacher shortage is worsening, according to a report to the General Assembly which convenes Jan. 2.

The Office of Education Accountability (OEA) recently reported that ramifications of personnel shortages in Kentucky schools are growing. State officials and educators say addressing the shortage means supporting teachers “across the pipeline” — from their time in postsecondary education to leading classrooms.

“While teacher shortages have long existed in Kentucky, the magnitude of the shortages (has) increased since 2019, the last time OEA studied teacher shortages,” the report said. “The number of open teaching positions increased from what was measured in 2019.”

Among the trends identified in the report:

  • Most superintendents and principals report a lack of qualified job candidates for positions.
  • Fewer people  have completed teacher preparation programs.
  • The number of emergency teaching certificates doubled between the 2020 and 2023 school years.
  • School administrators say that teacher salary and benefits are insufficient when compared to private industry jobs.

However, despite administrators’ emphasis on pay, teachers who leave are not necessarily earning higher salaries, according to the OEA report. An analysis of wage data showed that 65% of teachers who left in 2019 were earning about $5,000 less in the private sector in 2022.
From 2014 to 2023, districts have increased starting teacher salaries between 3% and 22%. The lowest teacher starting salary in a district in 2023 was $34,004 and the highest starting salary was $45,772, the report says.

Not just teachers

The OEA described the shortage of custodians, bus drivers, food service workers and substitute teachers as “acute.”

“Over the last 5 years, local boards have increased pay by up to 19 percent; however, classified staff leaving the workforce appear to be making a lot more in the private sector, as much as 115 percent,“ says the report.

Seventy superintendents indicated that, due to staffing shortages, they retained staff that they would have terminated due to poor performance in previous years.

As part of gathering information, OEA conducted site visits and sent a survey to superintendents, school principals and a sample of teachers. OEA is the legislature’s education watchdog created by the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

One conclusion was that Kentucky teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates. Between the 2014 to 2023 school year, teacher turnover increased at the school, district and state levels. In the 2023 school year, 10.9% of teachers across Kentucky did not return to teaching in the state. In that same year, 16.7% of teachers did not return to their districts and 20% did not return to their schools.

“These figures were the highest amounts in the 10-year observation period,” the report said. “It has become more difficult for principals to recruit and retain quality applicants when compared to 2019.”

The findings were released ahead of the General Assembly’s return to Frankfort in January, when lawmakers will begin debating the state’s next biennial budget. During his reelection campaign, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear renewed his call for raises for public school employees, proposing an 11% increase.

Sen. Matthew Deneen
LRC Public Information
 Sen. Matthew Deneen

Response to the report

OEA representatives presented the report during a Nov. 1 meeting of the legislature’s Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee. Sen. Matthew Deneen, R-Elizabethtown, who is a retired educator, said he agreed with the evidence presented in the report and highlighted the increase in alternative certifications. The senator also said that funding for transportation, the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) program, and cost of living adjustments must be reviewed.

“This emphasizes the importance and the need to bring back teacher mentorship programs to help those alternatively certified teachers or people that are coming into the profession through areas such as Option Six, which has been expanded,” Deneen said. Option Six is one of several paths to alternative teaching certification in Kentucky.

Eddie Campbell, the president of the Kentucky Education Association, agreed that mentorship programs are important not just for alternatively certified teachers, but all who are coming into the profession to have “someone there that you can lean on, to have discussions with, to talk about pedagogy, to bounce ideas off of.”

In general, Campbell said one of the biggest issues he hears from KEA members is pay not keeping up with inflation, and not just for teachers, but all public school employees, including bus drivers, cooks, janitors and more.

For teachers in recent years, workloads have increased with extended duties after school, Campbell said, such as meetings, games or other events. Another area that is often highlighted includes increased discipline issues.

Eddie Campbell
Eddie Campbell

The most immediate way to address the teacher shortage is to pay educators a starting salary of $50,000 and adjust the whole salary schedule, Campbell said. The National Education Association ranked Kentucky 44th in the country in starting teacher salary, with an average of $38,010.

“If we’re going to recruit the best and the brightest to come into our schools and work with our students, which is our state’s most precious resource, we want to make sure that we’re recruiting highly skilled, highly educated educators to come into our schools to work with our youth,” Campbell said. “So, we have to pay them as the professionals they are, and it’s the same with our classified workers.”

Other ideas that the General Assembly could support in the next state budget for educators include funding universal pre-K programs, professional development opportunities for educators and giving them resources to use in the classroom, Campbell said. It’s also important that teachers are part of the conversation.

“Let’s give them respect for the degrees and the knowledge that they have and say, ‘Hey, let’s see, what have you got?’ And let’s stop handing them cookie cutter curriculums and say you have to stick to this,” Campbell said. “Let’s let educators be innovative in their classroom, and same thing with our support professionals who are working with our schools.”

Within the past week, 98 new teacher vacancies were posted to the Kentucky Educator Placement System, said Jennifer Ginn, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, in an email. She added that “indicates the continuing problem with teacher recruitment and retention even during the school year.” That number does not reflect prior vacancies outstanding that may not yet be filled.

Ginn said the department is “concerned about the continuing lack of teachers in Kentucky” in response to the OEA’s report.

“Every student deserves to have a high-quality teacher in their classroom who has the supports they need to be successful,” Ginn said. “It is a challenge that is being felt across the country.”

To address the teacher shortage in the next state budget, KDE has presented a few options to lawmakers “across the pipeline” from students entering postsecondary programs to Kentucky classrooms, Ginn said.

“Those options, which require additional funding, include increases in base SEEK funding, new teacher internships, GoTeachKY, Educators Rising, PRAXIS reimbursement and mentorship, educator leadership support, and high-quality professional learning,” Ginn said. “We hope the General Assembly will consider funding these initiatives to assist us in addressing teacher recruitment and retention challenges.”

GoTeachKY is a KDE initiative to recruit more teachers to the profession. Educators Rising, formerly known as Future Educators of America, also seeks to recruit the next generation of educators. The Praxis tests measure future teachers on their knowledge and skills before they enter the classroom.

Ahead of the upcoming legislative session, advocacy groups in the Kentucky Together Coalitionannounced Monday they would begin a public education campaign to call on lawmakers to address critical needs with dollars from the “rainy day fund,” including “an increase in core school funding to address the teacher and bus driver shortage and widening school funding inequity,” along with funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address Kentucky’s housing crisis as well as supporting higher education, mental health, drug treatment and people with disabilities.

This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.
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