I Do Not Want to Hear about a "Teacher Shortage"!

by Tina Blue
June 8, 2002

          Ever since I moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1970, I have been reading newspaper accounts of the acute teacher shortage in Kansas and about the various policies and incentives that have been suggested to attract and retain teachers.  Apparently the low salary scale in this state, combined with the very idea of living in Kansas, is enough to seriously reduce the applicant pool.

          Each year Kansas issues thousands of "emergency certificates" for substitute teachers.  A person needs only 60 hours of college credit to get such a certificate.  Students usually have that at the end of their sophomore year, before they have even declared a major!

          Here's what Martha Gage, team leader of teacher certification and education for the state education department, has to say about the situation: "They don't even have any training. They don't have a college degree." But, she says, the reason why so many emergency certifications are issued is that Kansas suffers from such a severe teacher shortage.

          This past year, for the first time since I've lived here, the Lawrence school district was able to announce that it had actually filled all its advertised teaching positions, and there was a full contingent of teachers in the district.

          And then, just last month, the district sent out pink slips to most of the new hires, as well as to a number of nurses and counselors.

          Even as these teachers were being fired, their work was being highly praised--as was the mentoring program that had been set up to help Lawrence retain new teachers by providing them with the support of more experienced teachers.  These new teachers were really good, we heard, and Lawrence students were lucky to have them.

          To have had them.

          Too bad.

          My sister Carol, who originally graduated in 1976 with a degree in Spanish and English, recently returned to college for an education degree, which she completed just last year.  She was hired by the Olathe school district to teach eighth-grade English.  Though happy with her new job, she was slightly disappointed at not being hired by the Shawnee Mission school district, where she had worked as a paraprofessional for two years.  But now she is relieved, since Olathe is probably the only district in Kansas that is not firing all its new hires.  If Shawnee Mission had hired her, she would be out of a job by now.

          Like most state legislatures, ours here in Kansas engaged in an orgy of tax-cutting during the flush nineties.  But even with state revenues drastically reduced by the tanking economy, they are not willing to consider restoring the tax base by rescinding some of the tax cuts from more prosperous times.  As a result, state funding for all schools will fall way below budget predictions, and school districts all across the state are frantically searching for ways to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from already underfunded programs. 

          Here in Lawrence we will lose sophomore sports and junior high cheerleading.  I must admit that I'm prejudiced.  I am not a big supporter of sports and cheerleading as academic endeavors anyway, and if something must be cut, this seems to me a good place to start.

          They are also eliminating zero-hour classes, which for many of our most ambitious high school students represents a genuine loss.  The WRAP program, which has a high rate of success at intervening with at-risk students, will also be cut, as it will lose its state funding.

          They tried to eliminate sixth-grade band, but the parents rose up in mighty protest, so they backed off on that one.  Good.  Music education is important.

          But here's the real kicker.  The Lawrence school district has fired a total of 65 teachers, counselors, and school nurses.  Most of those fired (almost 60) were teachers, the very teachers that were in such demand not too long ago.

          Schools in the district will no longer have onsite nurses.  That's a bigger problem than it may seem, now that students with serious disabilities and medical problems have been mainstreamed into public schools.  In the event of a major medical emergency with such students, the lack of a qualified nurse could spell disaster.  Besides, more students are sent to school sick, even very sick, because most of them don't have a parent at home to take care of them.

          There will be other cost-saving and revenue-enhancing measures.

          The district is presently scouring its list of students who get reduced-price meals to see which kids they can drop because they are not quite poor enough to properly qualify.

          The Lawrence school board is instituting $900,000 in new fees.  Enrollment, field trip, computer upkeep, and materials fees, as well as fees for participating in all extracurricular activities, will go up dramatically.  Textbook fees will also go up significantly (a 70% increase!), and now each student who lives less than 2.5 miles from school will be assessed a $260 yearly fee to ride the school bus.  One divorced mother with three children in grade school wrote to our local newspaper to ask how she is supposed to come up with an extra $780 per year to get her kids to school, not counting all the extra fees for everything else, including textbooks, for all three.

          Two-and-a-half miles is not too far for a child to walk.  But it's too far for a grade-school child to walk in a city with heavy traffic and few sidewalks (Lawrence is astonishingly devoid of sidewalks), carrying an overloaded backpack, as most schoolchildren now do.  Besides, nowadays a small child walking long distances without adult protection is an invitation to kidnappers and perverts.

          And young children really cannot be trusted not to take ill-advised risks in traffic.  Just yesterday I saw a ten-year-old boy on his way home from summer school dash across a busy street against a red light.  He came so close to being hit that it's a miracle he's still alive.

          The legislature refuses to raise taxes on its major donors.  But it is certainly raising taxes, however disguised as "fees," on people like that mother with three young children, who must come up with at least an extra thousand a year just to keep her kids in school, not counting what it will cost if they are to enjoy any extracurricular activities at all.  And let's not pretend that the benefits of education accrue only to children and their parents.  Every civilized society recognizes that an educated citizenry is a public good and that education should be supported by public money.

          I don't know whether the citizens of Kansas will punish their recalcitrant no-tax legislators at the polls this fall.  Certainly the legislators are convinced that they risk more from raising taxes than they do from slashing support for social services and education.  Nor do they believe that parents will be angry enough over decimated school programs and exorbitant fees to flock to the polls and boot them out of office.

          They may be right, especially since the effects of budget cuts might not be fully experienced before the elections.

          But do not--I mean, really, do not--tell me that there is a teacher shortage in Kansas.  I know of almost 60 excellent but unemployed teachers right here in Lawrence who would be more than willing to teach in Kansas.