TOPEKA – Byron Lewis was a student at Topeka High School when he was allowed to use the study room to read to kindergarteners at his old elementary school.
It was the first time Lewis – now an elementary school teacher in the Turner District – thought a career in education might be in her future. He holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Kansas State University and has been introduced to programs that encourage black men to enter the profession. Statewide, that’s not enough. Entering the fall 2022 academic year, there were approximately 1,500 teacher vacancies in Kansas.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Lewis said during a panel discussion Monday sponsored by the Kansas State College of Education at the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers.
Debbie Mercer, dean of education at K-State, said it was “absolutely critical” that educators win the rhetorical battle to persuade young people that education is a worthy career path and teach a valued type of public service from a cross section of society. Gone are the days when every education school graduate competed against dozens of other applicants for a job, she said.
“We’ve seen a change,” Mercer said. “There were several reasons. Teaching is hard work. It’s hard emotionally and it’s hard intellectually. Teachers need a lot of grit.”
The KSU principal, however, said those dedicated to teaching might be part of something bigger than themselves: “It doesn’t get any better.”
Mercer said the foundations of public education have been shaken by ideological assaults, complaints from lawmakers about the cost of state funding for K-12 education, the end of teachers’ tenures, and concern about insufficient salaries.
In the current 2023 session of the Kansas Legislature, the Republican-led House and Senate also plan to discuss bills that direct tax dollars to private schools with voucher-like tax incentives and “grant grant” programs. study,” imposing a parental bill of rights to influence curriculum and library ownership, and mandates that transgender students participate in sports based on gender at birth.
Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Topeka Public Schools, said social challenges mean teachers can play a life-changing role for students. She said her parents were active in the civil rights movement and education was a central component of that ongoing work.
“For me,” she said, “moving into education was a natural next step in continuing to advocate for equality across the board.”
Lewis, who taught in Topeka before moving to the Kansas City, Kansas area, said Kansas lawmakers should closely examine financially strapped student teacher compensation proposals as they complete requirements for an education degree.
A task force of college-affiliated educators from the Kansas Board of Regents has suggested the legislature allocate $9 million annually to pay 1,800 student teachers an average of $5,000. The state would pay 75% of the program and local districts would collect 25%.
Additionally, the task force recommended the state expand a $2.8 million teacher scholarship program that requires educators to work in an underserved area.
Senator JR Claeys, R-Salina said the Kansas Board of Education should address the teacher shortage by approving participation in an interstate compact that allows out-of-state teachers to more easily transition to vacancies in Kansas. The pact would allow Kansas school districts to recognize teachers’ licenses from other states.
“The agreement is legally binding and proposes removing some licensing and assessment requirements for teachers to receive Kansas licenses,” Claeys said. “Teachers who wish to teach in another state would still need to meet all requirements to receive a license in their home state, such as a full bachelor’s degree. Each candidate would also undergo the usual background check and any disciplinary action taken against them would be considered.