Kansas Is Becoming A Hard Place To Teach, So Teachers Are Crossing The State Line

Jul 2, 2015

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in July 2015.    

In the next couple of years, Kansas education will face some of its most unstable times ever.

The Legislature has cut classroom funding. There’s no school finance formula and the the whole system may be thrown into chaos depending on what the state Supreme Court does.

All of this is all taking a toll on recruiting and retaining teachers, and there's mounting evidence that Kansas teachers are becoming disenchanted. And out-of-state districts are taking advantage.

A billboard along the Kansas Turnpike eight miles east of Lawrence reads: Independence Missouri School District. Hiring teachers for 2015-2016.

"Yes, we do have two billboards in Kansas, along major areas where people drive," says Independence Superintendent Dr. Dale Herl. He also has another billboard near Wichita.

His district is growing by hundreds of students a year and for 2015-2016 he needed a lot of teachers fast.

Turns out, there seems to be plenty from Kansas looking for jobs elsewhere.

"I think teachers have done more with less for a number of years and it does wear on you," say Julie Wilson who coordinates teacher recruitment and retention in Kansas and maintains the website kansasteachingjobs.com.

Right now there are some 700 openings in the state for teachers and non-teaching staff. Wilson says that’s double the number of openings they usually have this time of year.

Kansas teachers, she says, just don’t feel supported.

"You know, the expectations have remained the same if not more and our funding hasn’t matched that," she says.

Wilson and other educators say it’s hard to fill teaching jobs in Kansas right now because not only has funding not kept up with needs, but how schools will be funded is up in the air.

The block grants passed by the legislature this year have been found unconstitutional and that funding scheme is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

Revenue continues to lag so the budget in Kansas next year will be challenging, at best.

First year teacher Morgan Rodecap chose to teach in Missouri rather than Kansas.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

But it’s not just the budget.

The legislature has stripped Kansas teachers of tenure protection and this session tried to severely limit their bargaining power.

That’s an ugly combination for many young teachers, like Morgan Rodecap who’s teaching math this summer at Pioneer Ridge Middle School in Independence, Missouri.

"But a lot of, like, my Missouri friends as we’re becoming new teachers and getting our degrees, we’re not looking in Kansas," he says.

Rodecap says her goal coming out of graduate school was to return to her hometown of Topeka to teach.

She was actually offered a job in Junction City, Kansas but because of an uncertain budget they couldn’t tell her how much she would be paid.

So she took a job in Missouri instead.

"It’s definitely sad that I can’t be where family is and it’s angering that this kind of thing is affecting kids," Rodecap says.

Van Horn High School in the Independence School District. Applications from Kansas for Missouri teaching licenses have increased since 2011.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

Data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggests there is indeed a migration of teachers from Kansas to Missouri.

In 2011, before huge tax cuts were enacted, only 85 applications for Missouri teaching licenses were filed with a Kansas address.

In the next three years, as school budgets were slashed, those applications doubled.

During that same period, applications for Missouri teaching licenses from Arkansas and Iowa remained steady.

"It’s hard to know how big an impact those issues are but they’re certainly things that come up," says Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards. He just finished a cross-Kansas trip where he met with educators in dozens of school districts.

School leaders, he says, are worried about the long-term stability and support for education in the state.

"But certainly Kansas has gone through the last few years, I think, what many people see as an unusual amount of instability, or at least potential instability," Tallman says.

Even in the Shawnee Mission School District, among the most stable school districts anywhere, there seems to be concern among employees.

The district confirms that 250 teachers, staff and administrators have retired in the past 12 months.

That’s much higher then normal, the district says, because many took the district-offered early retirement.

Why? Many educators say they wanted out before changes were made to the Kansas retirement system, making it less generous and, says Independence Superintendent Dale Herl, making Missouri more attractive.

"Is there a correlation of the number of teachers leaving Kansas and the atmosphere? I would have to think so. If the same situation was happening in Missouri, I would think that the same thing would be happening," says Herl.

The real fear is the long-term effect on Kansas education. School districts now have to worry about a shrinking pool of young teachers at a time of massive baby boomer retirements. Meaning the true damage might not be felt for several years.

KCUR intern Julia Szabo contributed to this report.