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Nearly three-quarters of Ky. teachers are at risk of leaving the profession, top ed official says

The State Capitol in Frankfort houses the three branches of Kentucky's state government.
The State Capitol in Frankfort houses the three branches of Kentucky's state government.

Nearly three-quarters of the state’s teachers are at risk of leaving Kentucky’s public schools—that was the warning from Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass to a committee of state lawmakers Tuesday.

In a presentation to the Interim Joint Education Committee, Glass said 72% of the state’s 42,000 full time teachers are at risk of leaving the profession, either because they’re close to retirement, or because they’re in groups that are more likely to quit: early-career teachers and teachers who have returned to the classroom after a break in service.

The statistic was one of several Glass used to paint a picture of the teacher shortage, which has been a problem for many years. Some have warned of a mass exodus of teachers as a result of the pandemic. 

“We really don't have enough data to say whether that's true or not yet,” Glass said. “But we did want to look at, ‘Are we at risk?’”

Like many states, Kentucky is struggling to hire and retain enough teachers. 

Glass said Kentucky is “right around where other states are, or a little worse” when it comes to teacher turnover.

One major problem, Glass said, is that far fewer college students are entering teacher preparation programs, curtailing the pipeline of teachers. At the same time, between 16% and 18% of teachers leave the state’s public schools each year. The result is that schools are only able to fill 83% of posted positions.

Increasingly, they’re relying on teachers who have their “emergency certification,” which requires less training and rigor than traditional teacher certification.

The education commissioner proposed a number of solutions to lawmakers, from increasing teacher compensation, to funding recruitment efforts, to changing the political discourse around education.

“Teaching has been under a lot of scrutiny and criticism for a number of years, and that honestly is hurting us when it comes to recruiting teachers into the profession,” Glass said. He pointed to the highly-charged debates around purported “critical race theory” in classrooms, and the politicization of schools’ coronavirus measures.

He also suggested lawmakers increase funding for the state’s teacher recruiting program, raise teacher pay and provide opportunities for teachers to increase their salary without leaving the classroom for an administrative role.

“Teachers go into this field for altruistic reasons, for the most part,” Glass said. “But they also want a professional and livable wage, they want to have access to a middle-class life, and they want to retire with dignity.”

According to the National Education Association, Kentucky’s average teacher salary was $54,139 for the 2020-2021 school year, about $11,000 below the national average.

Another barrier Glass discussed with lawmakers was the Praxis exam—which Kentucky requires teachers to pass to earn their certification. The exam’s fees are a barrier for some would-be teachers and it has disproportionately low pass rates for Black teachers and other teachers of color. 

Glass suggested lawmakers could change the Praxis requirements. 

Western Kentucky Republican state senator Danny Carroll pointed to a “contentious” relationship between the legislature and educators. Divisions have flared several times since 2018 between Republican lawmakers and teachers over efforts to cut teacher benefits or privatize public education.

“I think there is often a perception within the teaching profession that Frankfort just doesn't care — the legislature doesn't care — and [it] couldn't be further from the truth,” Carroll said. “I mean year after year I think we have shown through budgets, through other legislation, that there is an effort to improve the teaching profession in our state.”

Carroll asked Glass what lawmakers could do to “get rid of the negative connotation.”

“I know that you feel like you've done some positive things with funding,” Glass answered. “The challenge that you have is, as legislators and with the fiscal responsibilities that you have, is you have to keep doing it, because the pressures on schools — the inflationary pressures — keep coming.”

In the last budget, the GOP-led General Assembly passed a modest increase in education funding, after several years of flat per-pupil spending and cuts in some areas. Lawmakers declined to give teachers or other school-based staff a raise, but gave all other state employees a raise of 8%.

The left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates state funding for public schools has fallen 26% since 2008, when adjusting for inflation and student population changes.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.