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How Ky. lawmakers are responding to the teacher shortage

The exterior of a stately building on a clear day.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
House Bill 377 includes measures to address Kentucky's teacher shortage.

As teachers leave Kentucky classrooms at an alarming rate, the GOP-led Legislature is hoping to entice more people into the profession with loan forgiveness and student stipends.

The shortage of teachers and other school staff is one of the most difficult challenges facing public education across the country. Kentucky is no different.

Last year, one in four Kentucky teachers left their classroom, and there aren’t enough teachers-in-training to take their place.

State lawmakers passed several measures this session that they’re hoping could help, including a loan forgiveness program.

Down a math teacher at Danville High

Kentucky’s teacher shortage is so widespread, you don’t even need to leave the state Capitol to find someone with firsthand experience of the problem.

“It’s a big mess,” Danville High School student Sam Wilson told LPM News. Wilson was outside the Capitol Annex Building in Frankfort with some friends for a youth advocacy day in March.

Since August, Wilson’s school has been short a math teacher, leaving five periods of algebra without a permanent instructor. The school combined two classes and arranged for other math-certified teachers to fill in, even bringing over a teacher from the district’s middle school. But Wilson said often there are subs.

“I have a free period, and sometimes I’ll hop in there and help just whoever needs help because there's a sub and obviously they're doing their best — but they're not math-certified,” he explained.

Wilson tutors many students in those algebra periods, which is good experience for him since he plans on becoming a teacher. But he knows it's not ideal for his classmates.

“I’m good at math, and I like to think I’m good at teaching — but I’m not a math teacher. I’m a senior in high school,” Wilson said.

A shortage of math teachers has been cited by officials at the Kentucky Department of Education as one possible reason why state test scores dropped in high school math last year.

Student loan forgiveness

At the root of the problem is that far fewer people want to be educators.

Enrollment in Kentucky’s teacher prep program is down 37% from a decade ago. Republican state Rep. Kim Banta wants to change that.

“I think we need to keep removing barriers,” Banta explained from behind her desk in the Capitol Annex. The retired school administrator for Kenton County School District said one barrier is the cost of college and the challenge of paying it back on a teacher’s salary.

Banta sponsored several measures this legislative session to entice more people into the profession. House Bill 377 would offer teachers up to $5,000 dollars in student loan forgiveness for each year teaching in a Kentucky classroom.

For some teacher prep program graduates, the amount of student debt they have may be greater than their entire annual starting salary, Banta said. The average starting salary for a Kentucky teacher is about $40,000 a year. But depending on the district, entry level pay can fall as low as $24,000.

“If they were deciding, ‘Do I want to be a teacher, or do I want to do something else that might pay more right out of the get go?’ then a loan forgiveness might put you over the edge to go into and stay in education,” Banta said.

A woman in a blazer sits behind a large desk for a portrait.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
Fort Mitchell Republican Rep. Kim Banta sponsored several measures aimed at curbing the teacher shortage.

University of Louisville education student Ashanti Buford is in her last year of college and can’t wait to get into the classroom at Jefferson County Public Schools. She said the loan forgiveness program could take care of all of her student debt.

“It would just knock it out,” Buford said.

The student loan forgiveness program would be a two-year pilot program. Lawmakers set aside $14.8 million to fund it.

Stipends for student teachers

Buford said she is also excited about money lawmakers set aside to pay student teachers under HB 377.

Would-be teachers have to complete a semester of supervised teaching to graduate and get certified. That student teaching period is currently unpaid.

On top of going to college full-time, Buford works a full-time job at Maryhurst to pay her bills. But once her student teaching begins, she said she may have to quit or cut back on her hours.

“I knew it was going to be a real struggle,” Buford said. “I would have to basically be working full-time without pay. I was kind of worried. I didn’t know what I was going to do, to be honest.”

In addition to the loan forgiveness program, HB 377 creates a $5,000 stipend for student teachers.

Buford may benefit from another fairly new option that allows districts to pay some student teachers by hiring them as teaching assistants. But she said she thinks the proposed stipend will help others who don’t have those same options.

“Especially someone like me — that could at least cover rent for that semester,” she said.

HB 377 passed both chambers unanimously and was signed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

Beshear proposed an 11% pay increase for teachers and other school staff as one way to attract and retain educators. Kentucky’s average teacher salary was $54,574 in 2023 — ranking 40th in the country according to the National Education Association.

GOP lawmakers rejected Beshear’s proposal, much to the chagrin of Democrats and the Kentucky Education Association. Those in favor of boosting teacher pay point to the state’s record-high levels of savings as a way to fund raises.

“While surrounding states devote more and more resources to recruit and retain quality educators, it is disappointing that our elected representatives didn’t take the same opportunity,” KEA president Eddie Campbell wrote in a statement on the state budget lawmakers passed at the end of March.

Republicans did make modest increases to overall state education spending, which they say gives districts the option to fund their own pay raises.

Those spending increases include a 3% boost to the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, or SEEK, fund in the first year, and a 6% increase in the second year. SEEK is the state’s contribution to public school funding.

The Republican-led Legislature also agreed to cover more transportation costs for districts compared to prior years.

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