Despite a common belief that Kansas loses more of its teachers every year, the state actually imports more teachers than it loses to other states.


According to a report from the Kansas Department of Education’s Teacher Vacancy and Supply Committee, licensure data from last school year shows that with 562 new educators coming from out of state compared to 313 teachers who reported leaving the state to find work, Kansas imported 249 teachers.


Additionally, Kansas schools saw teacher stability rates — or the number of teachers who remain in their jobs and don’t transfer to another district — of 88.1% last school year, better than the national average of about 85%.


Mischel Miller, director of teacher licensure and accreditation, said those rates reflect Kansas’s strong ability to recruit and retain people to communities where they can feel safe, secure and comfortable.


"We’re keeping our younger teachers in the profession, our older teachers are staying as well," she said. "We do have a governor who really believes in education in Kansas, and that has helped. As much as we think younger people change professions frequently, our data suggests that once they get into education, they’re staying there for the most part."


Kansas isn’t particularly competitive among other states in terms of teacher pay, with average salaries of $58,878 among all teachers and an average salary of $40,471 for first-year teachers during the 2019-20 school year.


But those numbers show a marked improvement from previous years like 2018-19, when Kansas’s average public school teacher salary of $51,082 was ranked No. 39 among all states by the National Education Association. For reference, the NEA reported a nationwide average teacher salary of $62,304 that school year and estimated that 2019-20’s average salary would be $63,645.


While teacher pay in Kansas may not be competitive nationally, the state’s average still outpaces salary figures in the region, said Tuan Nguyen, a Kansas State University professor who researches teacher policy and the education labor market.


He said without specific data on where teachers are coming from, he imagines Kansas is pulling in teachers from nearby states.


"Even though the salary in Kansas has been fairly stagnant and low in comparison nationally, it’s still higher than places like Oklahoma," he said. "Are there teachers in Oklahoma, near the border, saying, ‘there hasn’t been a raise here in 10, 15 years, so I’m just going to move over into not-far-away Kansas where it pays better?"


Miller said Kansas school districts have done a good job of increasing salary when possible over the last three to five school years, especially as increased state funding for education gives districts more opportunities to do so.


"We’ve worked really hard, and we’re getting much, much better in Kansas," Miller said. "I think our state board does a phenomenal job of recognizing teaching as a profession and encouraging school systems to do everything they can when it’s an appropriate time to raise those salaries."


Vacancies


The committee also collected data on teacher vacancies during the first month of this school year. Vacancies — defined as any teacher position that is either not filled or filled with someone who doesn’t hold an appropriate license for that position — dropped from 815 in September 2019 to 771 in September 2020.


Those vacancies represent about 2% of the 36,000 full-time equivalent teachers working in Kansas. The number of vacancies, however, has been relatively consistent over the past few years, officials said.


The data comes as school districts have faced increased staffing needs for two main reasons.


In an effort to keep students socially distanced, some schools have increased the number of classrooms to try to keep class sizes low. But that requires increased teaching staffing, and while some districts are pulling in licensed, but nonteaching, staff like instructional coaches or administrators to fill in spots, those teachers may not have the appropriate endorsements for those positions.


Another reason for increased staffing needs is that COVID-19 has sent many teachers into quarantines, and schools are stretching their pools of substitute teachers thin as they battle to keep their buildings open.


However, Miller cautioned that the fall 2020 data might not be a completely accurate picture of teacher vacancies at the moment, since school district leaders have had to focus attention to COVID-19 and may not have reported data completely accurately.


The committee collects data twice each school year — once in the fall, and again in the spring — to determine which positions were actually filled. Miller said the spring 2021 data will give education leaders a better idea of how COVID-19 has affected Kansas’ teacher pool, especially since KSDE plans to include questions about the pandemic in that data collection.


"Anecdotally, every group of people I talk with, superintendents, principals — they’re all talking about the things they can do now to make sure they don’t have huge vacancies in the spring," Miller said. "I think (the spring data collection) can give us a clearer picture of, ‘did COVID affect the number of vacancies?’ "


Nguyen said that in conversations with other education researchers, the concern is that COVID-19-related teacher shortages might become more apparent next school year, rather than this year. That’s because while some teachers were willing to take on the virus’ risks this school year, the high stress and burnout of teaching in a pandemic are pushing teachers to leave or retire early.


Per KSDE’s fall 2020 data, special education, elementary, science, math and English teacher positions continue to be the top five positions for vacancies.


The most common reason for vacancies was that teachers currently in positions considered vacant were not fully qualified to teach those positions, based on their teaching endorsements. An example of that would be a teacher trained to teach math filling an English teacher position, Miller said.


Nguyen said in comparison to other states, Kansas has excelled in retaining its teachers. Teacher recruitment, or a lack of it, has played more of a role in creating a perception that Kansas is losing its teachers.


"It’s not like we’re bleeding teachers," he said. "If our stability rate is 88%, it means 12% are leaving, so there are things we can do on both ends, but the story here might be more on the recruitment side than on the retention side."


That perception might be part of a self-feeding cycle where teachers are reluctant to teach in Kansas because they hear that teachers are leaving the state. The challenge, then, is convincing teachers to think differently about Kansas education, and schools should focus on selling the positive success stories other teachers have had, Nguyen said.


"There are many people who want to go back to where they grew up, or they want to teach in a rural place similar to where they grew up," Nguyen said. "There are lots of positive things to the rural aspects of Kansas, but unless we frame that in the right way, people may think it’s a place that doesn’t pay so well or loses teachers all the time, so there must be something wrong. Based on the data that’s available, that’s not really the case."