The growing shortage of teachers and other school personnel is becoming more severe, according to a new report by the Kentucky legislature’s Office of Education Accountability (OEA). Inadequate funding and its impact on pay and working conditions is a consistent theme in the issues raised.
The report shows that Kentucky teachers are leaving their jobs at growing rates and fewer people are applying for teaching jobs and entering teacher training programs. Low pay and perceived lack of respect for the profession are among the major factors contributing to recruitment and retention challenges. Meanwhile, bus drivers and food service staff are leaving for the private sector and doubling their salaries on average. Longstanding funding inadequacies are driving many of these issues, and new financial challenges are coming with the end of federal pandemic funds next year.
The General Assembly will create a new two-year budget in early 2024, and a big question is whether substantially more of the billions in already-available recurring and one-time dollars will be used to address this growing crisis.
More teachers are leaving the profession, and fewer are entering it
The report shows that teacher turnover in Kentucky rose in 2023, with 10.9% of teachers leaving the profession compared to 8.9% on average over the previous nine years. Turnover is higher in schools with more low-income students and students of color, traits associated with fewer dollars and/or greater student needs for which more resources are necessary. More than one-third of the 261 teachers who responded to an OEA survey said it was “likely or extremely likely” they would leave the field of public education.1
At the same time, the report identifies a reduction in the number of people applying for teaching jobs. Fewer than 30% of principals said there are enough applicants or satisfactory applicants for open jobs, and the problem has worsened over the last five years. Teacher shortages are happening in nearly every subject area, and are most severe in the STEM subjects, languages and exceptional child programs. There was a 260% increase in the number of open teacher positions at Kentucky schools between 2019 and 2023.
The pipeline for new teachers is also narrowing with fewer entrants into teacher preparation programs. The report calculates that 1,573 fewer people completed these programs in the last five years compared to the previous five years, a decline of 11.6%. In response, districts are relying more on emergency and alternative certifications, but those options cannot fill the growing gap. To further address shortages, teachers are giving up planning periods and principals are increasing class sizes and eliminating classes, combining programs, using long-term substitutes and retaining staff who they might otherwise let go. But as the report notes, “these methods may exacerbate any problems with teachers’ working conditions.”
Inadequate pay, lack of respect and burnout are major contributors
Teacher pay is a significant problem. More than three-quarters of teachers who responded to OEA’s survey disagree or strongly disagree with the assertion that “they are paid a fair amount for the work they do.” A pay raise is one of the top three resources teachers would choose for their schools if more resources were available. And over half of principals and three-fourths of superintendents said “salary insufficient compared to private industry” was a barrier to teacher recruitment and retention.
These opinions are backed by data showing low salaries that have failed to keep up with the cost of living. Starting teacher pay in Kentucky has increased between 3% and 22% across districts since 2014, but in all cases that’s lower than the 25% increase in inflation over that same time period. Beginning pay is as low as $34,004, and one-third of teacher survey respondents reported having a second job outside the school, a number that matches national estimates for new teachers.
Top factors prompting teachers to consider leaving the profession include pay as well as “burnout,” “overall lack of respect of the profession” and “student behavior,” an issue that is exacerbated by the lack of supports for kids in the school and the community. Lack of respect for teachers in society was also identified as a barrier to recruitment by nearly half of principals. The disrespect some teachers feel may contribute to the report finding that most teachers who left the profession in 2019 were making even less money in the private sector than they made when teaching in 2022.
Districts are losing bus drivers and other classified employees, who make far more money in the private sector
The report also documents major losses in “classified” staff, or employees whose jobs do not require a teaching certificate. Since 2019, there’s been a loss of 1,225 or 12.9% of bus drivers, 7.3% of custodians and other operations staff, and 3.7% of food service staff.
Those workers are leaving public school jobs for much better pay elsewhere, with bus drivers and food service workers doubling their pay on average by going to the private sector, as shown in the table below. Bus drivers who left in 2021 are making $36,944 on average in the private sector, or $19,769 more a year, while food service workers are making $28,559 on average or $13,982 more than their public school job.
Source: Office of Education Accountability, Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee
More funding challenges are coming
As KyPolicy has documented, these challenges are related to the long-term erosion in state dollars for K-12 education. The state currently funds the core school funding formula (known as SEEK) at a level 27% less than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. That’s resulting in average teacher pay failing to keep up with inflation and the gap between wealthy and poor school districts reaching the level declared unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court in the 1980s. In school transportation, the state is suspending its own law to shortchange funding for school buses by $124 million this year.
The OEA report also notes another state law that has been suspended in the budget every year since 2010 that allocates funds to school-based decision making councils. One recommendation of the report is to end that suspension. Doing so could mean flexible dollars that might go to school supply purchases and help address the income loss and disrespect teachers feel from having to buy so many of their classroom supplies out of their own pockets.
Funding challenges will soon heighten. As the report documents, districts have been using federal pandemic funds to fill budget holes and address COVID-related learning loss, but those monies end next year. OEA reports that a total of 3,890 school positions are funded with pandemic dollars (through a program known as ESSER). Of those, 2,133 or 55% are existing positions for which other funding will have to be identified when the money runs out. Of the other 1,757 new positions created with ESSER funds, only 349 are expected to be retained when the monies end, meaning a loss of services that are currently being provided.
Those funding reductions will come at the same time districts may see state funding cuts due to student attendance declines resulting from post-pandemic absenteeism. The SEEK formula as currently designed is based on average daily attendance. That means when there is a sudden drop in students, districts receive fewer state funds even though their overhead and facility costs may be relatively unchanged. The poorer counties experiencing the biggest recent decreases in attendance rates are eastern Kentucky counties already disproportionately harmed by state erosion of the SEEK per pupil funding level, as well as recent flooding. More than half of superintendents responding to OEA’s survey say they will have to cut staff if SEEK funding is reduced for this reason.