Children who come from low-income families, have disabilities, aren’t white or don’t speak English at home appear to be disproportionately paying the price of Kansas’ teacher shortage, according to an analysis by the Kansas News Service.

Particularly affected are Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City — southwest Kansas towns where most of the students come from low-income families and more than half face the added challenge of building math, literacy and other skills while acquiring English as a second language.

The state’s largest school district, Wichita Public Schools — another predominantly non-white district where three-fourths of the students come from low-income families — is struggling too, reporting nearly 80 unfilled positions as of early this school year.

“It does not lend itself to a fully functioning democracy to not have a strong public education system,” said Steve Wentz, president of the Wichita teachers union. “At some level, money and race is obviously an issue here that people don’t want to talk about.”

Debbie Mercer, dean of education at Kansas State University, said the disproportionate effect of teacher shortages on students in demographic groups that face academic achievement gaps is cause for concern.

“That’s the heart of this struggle,” Mercer said.

About 110 of the 443 teacher and related vacancies reported statewide this school year for prekindergarten through 12th grade involved educating children who have disabilities or are learning English as a second language.

The dearth of special education teachers in particular has long been a problem.

“If we look at special education,” Mercer said, “we’ve known that’s been the No. 1 area of need for years.”


Hiring challenges

The Kansas News Service obtained a breakdown of this year’s school vacancies through a data request to the Kansas State Department of Education. The list includes unfilled positions for teachers and some other personnel, such as counselors and psychologists.

Nearly half of vacancies at public school districts were concentrated in five districts where upwards of 70 to 80 percent of students come from low-income families:

• Wichita USD 259, 79 vacancies (compared to about 4,300 total certified staff last year).

• Garden City USD 457, 42 vacancies (about 615 total certified staff last year).

• Liberal USD 480, 29 vacancies (380 total certified staff last year).

• Kansas City, Kan., USD 500, 29 vacancies (2,135 total certified staff last year).

• Dodge City USD 443, 22 vacancies (about 470 total certified staff last year).

David Smith, communications director for Kansas City Kansas Public Schools, said the district finds it challenging to attract qualified job candidates and compete with teacher salaries in wealthier areas of the Kansas City metro, making it harder to close achievement gaps.

“It’s one of the things we struggle with and why we fight so hard for equity,” he said. “If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, then the resources need to be in the places where it’s possible to do that.”

Kansas has a goal of significantly boosting math and reading achievement and graduation rates for traditionally disadvantaged and underserved student groups with lower outcomes on those measures — such as black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, students from low-income families and English language learners. The state told the federal government this fall that it wants to close those gaps by 2030.

At the five higher-poverty districts, non-white students make up the majority, with Hispanic and black students being the largest ethnic and racial groups. Sixty-four percent of children in the Liberal district are learning English as a second language, as are 58 percent in Dodge City and 49 percent in Garden City.

“What you’re experiencing is being experienced across the country,” said Patricia Gandara, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. “We’ve always had a shortage of highly qualified teachers in the lowest-income schools.”

Gandara said nationwide, districts with more low-income and minority students are more likely to lack resources critical to successful schools.


Bearing the brunt

The Kansas education department began collecting more detailed information on vacancies in the past few years to investigate anecdotal reports that applicant pools were dwindling.

The list of 2017-18 vacancies backs that impression — as well as conclusions last year by a special task force that a relatively small number of urban or remote southwest Kansas school districts are bearing the brunt of the problem. Statewide, 99 percent of teaching jobs are filled. (View the task force’s report:

All but one of Kansas’ public school districts reported their vacancies to the education department this year, as did some private schools and interdistrict centers or similar entities that allow schools to share staff.

Geography likely compounds the problem. Sally Cauble, a Republican who represents 40 western Kansas counties on the Kansas State Board of Education, said districts struggle to attract candidates to the more sparsely populated half of the state, and the implications worry her.

“I believe that children are the future of your state,” she said. “They’re your future workers, your future leaders.”

Schools often fill vacancies with long-term substitutes or teachers certified to teach other subjects, or redistribute students, resulting in larger class sizes. This spring, districts will report to the state how they dealt with this fall’s vacant positions.


Economic effects

The shortage also has implications for Kansas’ aspirations to bolster math and science education amid a national push to better prepare students for college and careers. This fall, Kansas middle and high schools came up short about 70 math and science teachers.

“Literacy in all those fields for all people is critically important,” says Steve Case, who leads efforts at the University of Kansas to prepare more math and science teachers. “It drives our economic engine.”

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson convened the 2016 task force on teacher supply. The panel suggested factors contributing to the situation could include low pay compared to the private sector, lack of mentoring for early-career teachers, low public esteem for the profession and Kansas’ lack of teacher job protections since 2014.

The Kansas State Department of Education doesn’t yet have complete figures on teacher pay for this school year but estimates that it rose more than 4 percent if benefits such as health insurance are included. The increase came amid a boost in state funding for public schools, triggered by pressure from the Kansas Supreme Court.

Over the past several years, Kansas has seen a drop in college students pursuing and completing studies in education, as has the nation.

Though Kansas schools are still filling 99 percent of their instructional jobs, some superintendents across the state say the number of applicants has shrunk, leaving them fewer choices.


Fighting Back

In Garden City USD 457, Deputy Superintendent Heath Hogan said teacher vacancies have been trending upward for about three years. This year, he said, has been the most significant, with 14.5 long-term substitute teacher positions slated for the upcoming semester in grades K-6, four for grades 7-12 and two for special education classes.

Hogan said as teacher vacancies become more prevalent nationally, difficulty with recruiting in southwest Kansas has followed suit. To address the shortage, district representatives have been attending more than twice as many college career fairs than in years prior. Hogan said the district attended about 44 recruiting fairs in about 19 states last year, a notable increase from the 2010-11 school year, when the district attended about 11 career fairs in seven states.

Those efforts, he said, have led to an increase in the number of student teachers coming to Garden City to complete their education and potentially remain in the district as full-time teachers. Hogan said the district has had a “pretty high success rate” with student-teacher retention and anticipates 13 more student teachers to arrive in the 2018 spring semester.


Student Teachers

Tracy Leiker, principal at Victor Ornelas Elementary School in Garden City, said two student teachers are about to finish their program at the school and begin teaching with a license in January. After May, they will have the option to remain with the district or leave.

Leiker said there were four student teachers at the school last year who were afforded a team of two to three other teachers who guided them through the process that have remained at the school.

“The teacher shortage does affect us because we have to be proactive and creative in our recruiting,” Leiker said. “We have to be creative in finding long-term subs ahead of time if we cannot fill positions. It does affect Garden City because we’re always on the lookout for teachers, but I believe we’re trying to stay proactive and find people that want to be in the classrooms and help students succeed.”

With the ostensible surplus of student teachers at Victor Ornelas, Leiker said the school is not currently employing any long-term substitutes.

Vacancies in USD 457 are most common at the elementary level, spanning grades K-6, Hogan said. He described district recruitment as an “all-year process.”

“We have been forced to try different things and to do different things, but the outlook from a national perspective is not great,” Hogan said. “The bigger problem here is students not choosing education as a career.”


No Place Like Home

As part of the district’s promotion of the teaching profession, faculty and staff work with students at the secondary level to ready them for potential dual-credit opportunities with Garden City Community College by helping them map out their high school credits ahead of time.

“If we can get Garden City kids to stay or to even finish their education, then come back and start their careers with us, that’s one thing that we’re going to try to do to get more kids into education,” Hogan said.

Despite declines in Kansas education majors and a paucity of student interest in the western half of the state, Hogan still described Garden City as an “awesome” community for education, citing local approval of construction of the new state-of-the-art Garden City High School through passage of a bond in the late 2000s, even amid a national recession.

“We have a very welcoming community, not only in the school district as a school district family, but certainly beyond that in terms of local businesses and the opportunities to be involved and get connected,” he said. “Those are all important pieces, and I think our community really does a great job with that.”


Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Telegram staff writer Mark Minton contributed to this report.