Although the actual numbers fluctuate from week to week, the overall trend is clear: Kentucky has a shortage of classroom teachers and the crisis is expected to get worse.
On any given day, the state is short 1,500 to 2,000 teachers, according to Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass. In Jefferson County alone, the public school system reports 290 openings as of Jan. 20, according to Rep. Tina Bojanowski (D-Louisville), who is an elementary school teacher.
Gov. Andy Beshear recently said the state is down some 11,000 teachers, but Glass says that is an annualized number for openings across the commonwealth. But whether it’s a daily count or an annual figure, Glass says those numbers represent high-water marks in educator vacancies.
“Now is the time for us to take action, and if we don’t take some action, I think things are going to continue to get worse,” he says.
Beyond the unfilled positions, the commissioner says another troubling indicator is that the turnover rate for Kentucky teachers leaving the profession is more than 20 percent. Glass says that rate has increased in recent years and is greater than the national average.
Not only do superintendents have more job openings, but they report having fewer candidates to fill those positions. Glass says schools are increasingly turning to educators who have emergency certifications, which means they followed an alternative path into the profession. He says those individuals tend to be younger and/or less experienced.
“We’re 200 percent higher in issuing emergency certifications,” says Glass. “That is the brightest, red flashing light that you have a serious problem.”
“We’re grateful that those people are serving in our schools and supporting our students, but make no mistake, we’re putting a person with lesser qualifications into that role,” he adds.
Where those teachers work is also of concern to Glass. He says low-income schools are more likely to fill vacancies through emergency certification than are more affluent schools.
State House Education Committee Chair Rep. James Tipton (R-Taylorsville) says the Southern Region Education Board recently estimated that by the year 2030, some 40 percent of all public school teachers in the southeastern United States will have two years of experience or less.
“We not only want teachers in the classroom, but it’s imperative that we have quality teachers in the classroom,” says Tipton.
Rep. Killian Timoney (R-Nicholasville), a former teacher and school principal, agrees.
“We’re not putting babysitters in classrooms, we need quality instruction,” he says. “Our kids deserve it and our school systems and our communities deserve it.”
Factors Causing the Shortage
While school closures caused by COVID-19 helped bring the teacher crisis to widespread attention, the causes of all the vacancies are varied and have been building over time, according to educators and lawmakers.
Compensation is generally at the top of that list. Kentucky ranks 44th in the nation in terms of starting pay for public school teachers. Glass contends when total compensation is lacking, labor shortages naturally result.
“It’s not too much for us to ask to offer a competitive starting wage, to offer a path toward a middle-class standard of living, and to offer a path toward retirement with dignity,” the commissioner says.
Gov. Beshear and Democratic lawmakers have pushed an across-the-board pay raise for educators. The Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate so far have taken a different approach. Last year they voted record funding for public schools without allocating specific dollars to teacher salaries.
Tipton says that was done at the request of district superintendents who want the flexibility to set their own pay scales based on their specific needs. For example, in Spencer County, Tipton says some classified employees received a 20 percent pay bump. He says the problem with across-the-board increases is that teachers who already earn more receive more of the benefit from a flat percentage increase.
A second critical for issue for educators, according to an informal poll conducted by Bojanowski, is what teachers feel is a lack of respect from students, parents, administrators, and political leaders. She points to how state lawmakers have overhauled teacher pensions and pushed bills to regulate the teaching of history and how LGBT students should be treated.
“When we have these culture-war bills that make teachers out to be the next witch that needs to be burned, then we’re not feeling respected,” says Bojanowski.
Classroom discipline is another concern. Tipton says the Kentucky Association of School Administrators reports that two-thirds of educators say unruly students are disrupting classroom learning; 19 percent of teachers say they feel unsafe in their own schools.
Tipton says he expects legislation to be filed this week to give educators more tools to better manage discipline issues. He also says parents need to be firmer with their own children.
“It’s time for parents to be parents,” says Tipton. “Children need discipline, they need to know there are boundaries in life... It will make life much easier for them and I think it would make life much easier for our classroom teachers in schools if we had that taking place.”
Finally, Glass and Bojanowski say teacher morale is hurt when they feel micromanaged by administrators and lawmakers who they contend are dictating too much of what happens in classrooms and when.
“Are we professionals or are we just a cog in the teaching machine?” asks Bojanowski.
Because of all the open positions and new mandates from the state, teachers also feel the stress of being asked to take on more responsibilities without the benefit of extra resources to accomplish those tasks.
“What is happening is the demands are just only increasing, but our time isn’t,” says Woodford County social studies teacher Amber Sergent. “It’s becoming crystal clear – the effect on your work-life balance.”
Without schedules that allow teachers to better maintain that balance, Timoney fears they won’t perform their best at school.
“You walk into a classroom, you have to be on your A game,” he says.
Legislation Proposed to Help Ease the Shortage
To begin to address the teacher shortage, Tipton has proposed House Bill 319, which would make Kentucky part of an interstate teacher compact. Under that agreement, teachers licensed in another compact state could get an equivalent license in the commonwealth. Tipton says that would help get teachers into Kentucky classrooms more quickly.
But that compact doesn’t exist yest. Tipton says 10 states must approve similar legislation before the compact can become operational. He admits neither the compact nor anything else in HB 319 will immediately solve the current teacher shortages.
The legislation also requires the Kentucky Department of Education to collect and report exit surveys from school personnel leaving the profession; streamlines the job application process; creates a statewide marketing effort to attract people to teaching; expands the teacher scholarship program; provides new alternatives for covering classrooms lacking teachers; and mandates a review of the current alternative pathways for attaining a teacher certification.
“This isn’t going to solve all of our problems but these are some solid steps in right direction,” says Glass. “We have a large-scale problem, so we’ve got to think in terms of large-scale solutions.”
Even though 2023 is a non-budget year for lawmakers, Glass says he’d still like to see money allocated to teacher compensation. He also wants better support services for educators to make sure they are prepared for the challenges they will face in the classroom.
Bojanowski says schools also need more mental health supports for students and staff. Recent legislation requires campuses to have one counselor for every 250 children, but that bill did not provide the funding for schools to hire those personnel. Even if schools had the money, Bojanowski says they would still have trouble finding qualified people to fill the jobs.
Sergent says lawmakers should allocate funds to pay student teachers. But Tipton says that could cost as much as $20 million if all student teachers received a stipend. He says he’s considering a needs-based plan for paying certain student teachers that would only cost $3.8 million. Tipton is also exploring is a teacher apprenticeship program like one currently in place in Tennessee, which he says is funded by federal dollars.
Senate Bill on ‘Parents Rights’
Another measure moving through the 2023 General Assembly has already drawn significant public attention but would do nothing to address the teacher shortage. Senate Bill 150 is touted by its sponsor, Campbellsville Republican Sen. Max Wise, as a parent’s rights bill. It would give parents the right to preview sex education materials before permitting their child to receive that instruction. It also requires administrators to notify parents if their child requests any mental or physical health services from their school.
But another provision would give school staff the option to call students by their preferred pronoun, but would not require it. Education leaders and LGBTQ+ activists say that unfair and dangerous.
“The misgendering of transgender students leads to increased risk of self-harm and suicide,” says Glass. “That’s the reason that we ask our educators to call the student by the pronoun that they prefer. So there’s not a political reason that we’re into this. It’s out of trying to protect students.”
Bojanowski says that provision would undermine the bond between teacher and child that is essential to the academic process.
“The most important thing I can do for my students is to develop [a] trusting relationship,” says Bojanowski. “If I’m told by the General Assembly that I don’t have to honor their parents’ wishes about what pronoun to use, I have lost all trust with that child and I will not be able to make progress as that child’s teacher.”
The Senate passed SB 150 last week on a 29-to-6 party-line vote. The House has not yet taken action on the measure, and Tipton says there are representatives who feel SB 150 goes too far and others who contend it doesn’t go far enough. He says there will likely be a committee substitute to the measure, but he says he hopes the debate doesn’t consume too much focus during the short, 30-day session.
“Ultimately, I think issues like this, if we’re not careful, do distract us from the real issues of educating our students,” says Tipton. “However, they’re out there, they’re real, they’re in the world and we going to have to address those and figure out the best path forward.”
Timoney says he’s heard from impassioned parents on both sides of the issue. But he says lawmaker energy might be better put towards the teacher shortage, disciplinary issues, and helping kids recover from pandemic learning loss.
While some politicians and parents want to address what they see as “woke” school policies, Sergent says educators just want to focus on the work that called them into the profession in the first place.
“My job is to establish high expectations of rigor, high expectations of behavior, to help them dream of the world beyond,” says Sargent, who is the 2023 Kentucky High School Teacher of the year. “My job is not letting them know exactly what my politics are. My job is not to tell them what their politics should be.”