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Missouri's teacher shortage isn't getting any better. Will lawmakers act on a plan to fix it?

First grade students pay attention at Ingels Elementary in South Kansas City. More teachers are needed to staff classrooms in Missouri.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
First grade students pay attention at Ingels Elementary in South Kansas City. More teachers are needed to staff classrooms in Missouri.

Nearly two years ago, one of Missouri's top education officials said the state was at a “point of crisis” amid a chronic teacher shortage.

Little has changed in the months since Charlie Shields, the state Board of Education’s president, sounded that alarm. A recent report found that numerous teaching positions were either vacant or filled by individuals who were not fully certified.

The need is especially acute in areas classified as "critical," which includes elementary classrooms, early childhood education and special education. About 3,325 of those positions are vacant. More vacancies were found in positions classified as "high need," which includes math and sciences.

Paul Katnik, who oversaw the report as the head of DESE’s Office of Educator Quality, said the teacher shortage started before the pandemic, but has accelerated in the years since.

“It's the worst right now than it's ever been so I don't know a better reason to get urgent about something,” Katnik told KCUR. “I can't think of any reason why uneducated kids in our state is good for anybody so it should be something that's on all of our radar.”

A commission formed by the Board of Education was tasked in June 2022 with finding solutions to the state’s struggle with teacher recruitment and retention.

The commission has held town halls and sent out surveys to form two sets of recommendations — one recommending changes for teacher compensation and the other focusing on school climate and culture.

Some of those recommendations have found success, but others have hit legislative and logistical roadblocks.

Teacher pay and compensation

Missouri's teachers are among the country's worst-paid, making it hard for school districts across the state to keep and attract educators.

That’s why pay was one of the state commission’s biggest takeaways.

The average starting salary for Missouri’s teachers is just above $34,000. According to the National Education Association, only Montana pays new teachers less. The state’s average teacher salary ranks 47th in the country, at $52,481.

Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Clay County who served as a member of the commission, said low pay is driving teachers to take jobs elsewhere.

“We've seen a lot of teachers along that southern border, who live in Missouri, commute to work in Arkansas because the pay is so much better,” Arthur said.

The commission’s final recommendations included amending the state’s minimum teacher salary to at least $38,000 and requiring annual reviews to ensure pay remains competitive. The base salary for Missouri teachers is currently set by state law at $25,000.

The state is currently making up the difference through a grant program that increases starting salaries to $38,000 for participating school districts. In its first year, the program only funded 70% of the cost of the raise; districts paid the remaining 30%.

This year, the state will cover the full cost for districts raising salaries.

Katnik said that grant helps Missouri compete with other states, but its neighbors are also finding ways to inch up their pay. He also said the grant doesn’t help teachers with more experience.

“People who have been teaching for a while, suddenly the new people are making just a couple thousand less than them, and they haven't gotten a raise,” Katnick said.

One recommendation that does help experienced teachers is the “career ladder program,” which allows teachers to be compensated up to $5,000 for work outside of the classroom. The program didn’t receive funding for more than a decade before lawmakers revived it in 2022.

Another recommendation to fund the “grow your own program” also garnered support through the state budget last year. The program allows grants to be given to schools to support students and staff in their own schools to become teachers.

Arthur said the legislature has been able to fund a lot of the commission’s priorities through the state budget. But continued progress will require the legislature to keep appropriating funding.

“We hope to pass accompanying legislation to make these changes permanent,” Arthur said. “But it's a really encouraging first step.”

Creating ways for districts to retain teachers

Teacher pay wasn't the only concern the commission heard from teachers about why they’re leaving the field. Its second set of recommendations revolved around ways to improve school culture and climate.

Missouri Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City who served as a member of the commission, said she noticed escalating disruptive student behavior in the 1990s when she was a school counselor.

At the same time, Burnett said numbers of support staff in the classroom were declining.

“We can't continue to treat our teachers this way,” Burnett said. “That was the passion that I came to the commission with, that we would find a way to get support staff in the classroom.”

Burnett said she managed to allot money in last year’s budget towards a fund enabling schools to hire support staff. But Gov. Mike Parson vetoed the provision.

Some commission recommendations — like providing leadership training for administrators to better support teachers — wouldn’t rely on legislative support. Another recommendation is a master’s teaching certificate allowing teachers to be compensated more without needing to pay for an advanced degree.

These changes would need buy-in from school districts, and may still include some financial hurdles.

“I think school districts could do just about any of these things if they made it a priority,” Burnett said. “But we don't fund education at the level that it needs to be funded.”

Some progress this session, but also controversy

The Missouri Senate passed a wide-ranging bill last month that satisfies some of the recommendations from the Board of Education’s commission.

Those include increasing the minimum salary to $40,000 for new teachers and eventually to $48,000 for experienced teachers with a master’s degree. The bill would also create a teacher recruitment scholarship program and allow more flexibility for the career ladder program.

The bill, now under consideration in the House, began as an expansion of MOScholars, the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, and would also allow charter schools in Boone County.

The Missouri National Education Association said it recognizes the positive provisions added to the bill, but remains opposed because of concerns it would expand charter schools into communities without consulting the local school board and divert resources away from neighborhood public schools.

Arthur voted ‘no’ on the bill because she opposes vouchers. But she said Democrats managed to get concessions in the legislation, like the teacher pay boost, that would make a difference for the public schools.

“We thought that it was important that if Missouri Republicans wanted to expand school choice, that we fought for things that we're hearing are needed in schools,” Arthur said.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Jodi Fortino