Where are the teachers? Thousands of unfilled teaching jobs threaten education in Kentucky.

Ryan Brown taught high school in Rowan and Montgomery County for three years before he left the teaching profession in May because he thought the current climate “was very troublesome.”

While Brown had school administrators who offered as much support as they could, he said the administration “was pushing us to sacrifice what teachers really felt was true education for our students .... to get our (statewide ) test scores up. It took the joy out of teaching.”

Kentucky faces a teacher shortage that is prompting a new recruiting campaign by the state commissioner of education and an upcoming major state study for lawmakers. The problem is a top priority for a state superintendent group and for Kentucky’s post secondary officials.

Pensions, politics, pay and the pursuit of test scores all get mentioned frequently as leading reasons for the teacher exodus in Kentucky.

The fear for this fall and for the future is that public school students will have to make do with substitutes or with job candidates hired only because there were not more qualified applicants.

The open educator positions from the 2014-15 year to the 2016-17 year in Kentucky showed a “drastic increase” of 6,247 to 8,855 over a 2-year period, said Jessica Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department for Education.

With school starting by mid-August in most districts, there were more than 4,900 open positions listed on the Kentucky Educator Placement Service since the beginning of 2019 with more than 1,000 posted in the last 30 days.

It’s not just teachers leaving the work force. Fewer college students are studying to be educators.

In Kentucky, at the baccalaureate level, education degrees did not grow over the one-year period in 2017-18 while posing the largest five-year decline at 13.2 percent, a new report from the state Council on Post Secondary Education said.

The area of college study with the largest growth was STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with a one-year increase of 9.2 percent at the undergraduate level and 55.1 percent at the graduate level.

Allison Slone, a special education teacher in Rowan County and the administrator for the Facebook page “Kentucky Teachers in The Know” that has 19,000 members, said the push to teach for statewide tests which do ” not accurately evaluate the success of a student or a teacher” is just one of the reasons that Kentucky currently faces a teacher shortage.

Slone said there is fear of losing the pension system Kentucky teachers currently have since teachers do not receive Social Security benefits.

And she thinks there has been fallout from the negative attacks on public education by elected officials at the state and national levels:

“What once was a highly respected career, has become the butt of many peoples’ jokes, even though educators are truly some of the most important people in society,” Slone said. “Kentucky has a good ‘ole boy system that hinders the growth and experience of highly qualified individuals to gain and maintain employment and teachers fear retribution for speaking their mind.”

She was referring in part, to statements made in 2018 by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who admonished teachers for causing school closings when they descended in mass on the state capitol to demonstrate about public education issues.

Bevin said publicly that because schools were closed and some children were left home alone, students could have been sexually abused or otherwise harmed. He later said he apologized if his statements hurt people.

This year, after some school districts canceled classes when teachers went to Frankfort during the General Assembly, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet subpoenaed teacher absence records. If labor law violations are found, it could result in $1,000 fines issued to individual teachers.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who was hired by a state board appointed by Bevin, said he did not think that the political climate in Kentucky had led to the teacher shortage because the declines in enrollment in teacher preparation programs and the critical shortage areas are not any different than what is occurring across the nation.

Another teacher who recently left his job, Brison Harvey, said he left a social studies teaching position at Lexington’s Lafayette High School because he thought he could have more impact on education policy and improve the state’s classrooms by going to work for the Lexington-based Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Harvey said while not a primary factor, “it was kind of exhausting to continually hear and to listen to the political discussions that were happening with teachers sort of being pulled at the center. “

“It did have me re-examine what I wanted to do,” said Harvey. “It definitely colored what my thought process was in terms of leaving the classroom.”

He said he liked Lafayette and did not want to transfer to another school, but he didn’t see an immediate path to grow if he stayed in teaching. Brown, meanwhile, is currently looking for a job outside the classroom but still in education.

In explaining why he is launching a new campaign to recruit teachers to the profession called “Go Teach Kentucky”, Lewis said the state and the nation are facing teacher shortages “like we never have before.”

Superintendents tell Lewis they either get no applicants or receive one application and that an applicant is “not at all who they would like to hire for the position, lots of times they are forced to have to hire people for these positions” that they do not believe can improve student learning.

When school districts struggle to get high quality teachers in the classroom, that “threatens the absolute core of what we do in schools,” he has said.

“There are too many kids across Kentucky getting instruction from a substitute teacher who has not been prepared and is not appropriately qualified to serve kids or are being taught by a teacher that was not the ideal choice of the superintendent ...who say ‘If I had other options I would not have hired that person.’ That’s not what I want for my kid, that’s not what I want for any kid in this Commonwealth,” said Lewis.

The United States Department of Education designated several teacher shortage areas in Kentucky during the 2018-19 school year. In the Bluegrass and Eastern Kentucky regions, critical shortage areas included early childhood education.

The Bluegrass region additionally had shortages in English as a Second Language, Health & Physical Education, Social Studies and Speech & Language Pathology. In Eastern Kentucky, shortages were also found in Career and Technical Education, English & Communication, Exceptional Children, Foreign Language, and Math and Science.

What is different now than in years past, Lewis said, is that superintendents tell him they post elementary school teacher vacancies and get no applications.

Jeff Hawkins ,the executive director of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which includes several Southeastern Kentucky counties, confirmed that districts are having trouble filling elementary school teaching positions. He said there were 52 unfilled positions in the service area in November 2018, up from years past.

Ten years ago, southeastern Kentucky school districts might have 15, 20 or even 50 applicants for an elementary school job, according to Hawkins. Now, he said, districts are lucky if they only have one or two applicants. Five years ago, Hawkins said, there might not have been any openings or just a few because of retirements or resignations.

“Being able to attract and retain high quality teachers is always a challenge,” he said, “the pool of eligible applicants continues to decline.”

With fewer people going into the profession, the shortages will get worse as people retire, said Aaron Thompson, the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

“We have shortages in the area of science and technology, we have shortages of people of color going into the field and I think we have a shortage of knowledge about the value of being a teacher,” Thompson said.

“The conversation about whether we have a teacher shortage or not I think, maybe, is the wrong conversation. I think its way more nuanced and more severe than that,” Thompson said. “I’m more anxious about how we are building the pipeline with the kind of students that we need, with the kind of teachers that we need.”

Slone cited as other reasons for Kentucky’s teacher shortage the rising costs of a college education and lack of growth in teacher pay to balance the growth in living expenses. She said the growing debt accumulated by students is something many young adults are attempting to avoid .

She mentioned the cuts made by colleges and universities of several education departments and the growth in STEM related careers, which also pay much higher salaries and the decrease in available positions in public schools due to lack of funding. Slone said in many instances, when a school employee faculty or staff retire, they are often not replaced. Teachers are required to do the job of several people to make up for the loss of positions.

J .J. Allen of Lexington said he left the classroom after nine years to become a real estate appraiser because he needed more flexibility after his children were born. But he returned as soon as he could.

He is currently a teacher in a credit recovery program geared toward getting students to graduate at Fayette County’s Frederick Douglass High School.

“I feel like that’s my calling.. to teach and that that’s my passion,” he said.

He said he had talked to college students who are hesitant about pursuing jobs in the education field.

“A lot of them will talk about how they are kind of scared about all the violence that’s going on in schools now,” Allen said, “I let them know that that is not the case. I’ve been at Bryan Station High School, Tates Creek and now Frederick Douglass and find the schools completely safe.”

“I was kind of shocked. I thought it would be the money. Maybe it is that too. But I think within Lexington, within Fayette County.... the pay is decent. You can make a living,” he said.

Eric Kennedy, governmental relations director for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said he hears about the teacher shortage every day and it’s not isolated geographically.

“We hear it continually from our members and superintendents. I’ve heard several people say that twenty or thirty years ago, a teacher could not find a job. Now its the opposite, we can’t find teachers. People say, ‘We have a district-wide job fair and no one shows up. A posting is there for three or four weeks and not a single application comes in.’”

Jim Flynn, the former superintendent of Simpson County Schools who is now the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said Kentucky’s teacher shortage will “likely be our top advocacy priority for this coming year.”

“It’s the people that make the schools,” said Flynn. “You can have the latest, greatest technologies, the latest, greatest instructional materials, but if you don’t have people that can execute with those tools and resources, those things by themselves don’t do it.”

“We’ve got a branding problem. The debate around our salaries, and pensions and health care and all those things are so public, it’s not made education look like the most attractive profession,” he said. But as someone who has loved his profession for 30 years, Flynn wants young people and people who are mid-career to consider it.

Shelby County Superintendent James Neihof said his most significant concerns are science and math teacher shortages in middle and high schools.

“Both of the last two years we’ve ended up still making last minute hires...and not hiring subs in those areas. If we start the year with subs obviously it would be the worst of the last three,” he said.

Neihof said people with math and science credentials who go into the private sector can make $20,000 to $30,000 more than by going to work as a teacher where the beginning salary could be in the mid-$40,000’s. The average salary for a Kentucky teacher is $53,923, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

A new study that will give lawmakers more information is about to get under way by the staff of the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability. Its aim will be to explain the teacher shortage and the turnover rate. The turnover rate is the number of teachers from the previous year that didn’t return to that same district as a teacher.

Fayette County Public Schools has a 10.8 percent rate of teacher turnover, which is below the state average of 11.8 percent, according to staff from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability.

Fayette County Public Schools does not have an overall shortage of teachers, but there are some areas where the district has historically seen fewer qualified candidates, such as higher level math and science positions and some areas of special education, including teachers for students with visual or hearing impairments, said spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.

“We actively recruit throughout the state and nation for highly qualified candidates in all areas,” Deffendall said.

An April career fair drew roughly 500 professionals interested in working in Fayette County and many have been hired, she said.

In a post on the state education department website, Lewis said addressing the critical teacher shortages will require that Kentucky fundamentally reconsider recruitment and retention, including asking tough questions about the profession and its attractiveness to younger generations.

Lewis said Kentucky officials need to do a better job of publicizing that there are currently eight alternative routes to teaching that permit individuals to pursue teacher certification in Kentucky, including having exceptional work experience in an academic content area and being veterans of the armed forces.

One recruitment initiative already underway is that some Kentucky high schools, including those in Fayette County, have programs to train students who are interested in the teaching profession called teaching and learning career pathways.

Lewis said Kentucky’s education system is going to have to create benefits packages for young people to come into teaching for shorter periods of time and being able to take their benefits with them when they leave.

Allowing more opportunities for teachers to advance as an educator without having to become an administrator could also be important, he said.

Teacher J.J. Allen said he will do his part to recruit.

“My job as a teacher and as a leader is to get out there and be an advocate for public schools and let the kids in college or people that are thinking of going into education (know) that its a really good job,” Allen said.