MATTOON – It has been a plight schools in Coles County and other neighboring counties have voiced for several years now: the shortage of teachers in Illinois is getting more serious.
And a new report released Monday from the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools stressed just how much that is the case.
The report based its findings on survey responses from 527 of the 858 district superintendents in Illinois, and it concluded that the shortage has reached virtually every subject area and region of the state, and has forced schools to either cancel programs, enlarge class sizes or use teachers who are not fully licensed in a particular subject area.
Of those surveyed, the report said, 85 percent reported experiencing some level of teacher shortage this year, up from 78 percent in a similar survey conducted in 2017. Nearly one-third (32 percent) reported a “serious” shortage.
"It is pretty bad," said Kyle Thompson, assistant regional superintendent.
In the region, 70 positions have been posted across school districts, and 50 of those have been open since Dec. 1, a once unheard of phenomenon for school leaders.
Schools in the county have not had to cancel programs, but have had to rely on substitutes to fill holes that were unfilled ahead of the school year.
In the Mattoon School District, officials had to start the school year with two substitutes for English positions at the high school and one substitute teacher for a special education position at the middle school.
The year before, Mattoon officials found challenges filling other positions, including psychology.
The district has hired a mid-year graduate for the special education position, said Dave Skocy, assistant superintendent for human resources.
Skocy noted all of the positions will be filled for the next school year as it stands now, but said he a drop off in the amount of applications to the district is evident.
He said the decline was evident in the 2016-17 school year, and has been continuous since.
"The candidate pools are not there," Skocy said.
Charleston Superintendent Todd Vilardo said his district recently received a smaller number of applicants for special education teachers, middle school computer science teachers and bilingual tutors.
The district had to use a long-term substitute teacher for a math class at Charleston High School last semester before a permanent teacher was hired this spring, Vilardo also said.
Oakland Superintendent Lance Landeck said his school district has experienced difficulty filling some teaching positions in recent years due to a shortage of qualified applicants.
For example, Landeck said Oakland was unable to fill its Spanish teaching position in 2017-2018, so the district needed to hire the Proximity Learning company to provide Spanish classes via video to students. He said the district was able to hire a Spanish teacher for 2018-2019, but this instructor is only available to work part time.
Landeck also noted that Oakland may face some difficulty in replacing its high school math teacher after this instructor retires at the end of the current school year.
"We have had this job opening posted since last September and we have had no applicants," Landeck said.
A decade or so ago, it was a different picture. For example, a district could have 100 applicants for an elementary school positions when it is posted, Thompson said. He said that same position would be lucky to have 10 applicants.
"It's definitely not as easy as it used to be," Charleston Assistant Superintendent Chad Burgett said.
In some cases, this is forcing districts to resort to means that will get existing teachers in the door including recruiting teachers in neighboring districts, which then can put that district in the same position, Thompson said.
"It is the teacher shuffle," Thompson said.
Nearly two-thirds of those responding (63 percent) to the survey also reported having a “serious shortage” of substitute teachers.
Skocy said the Mattoon district has 126 substitute teachers, when they used to have at least 200 or so available to call in.
As a result, the report stated, the superintendents who responded to the survey reported a total of 1,032 vacant positions that still had not been filled by the time classes started last fall, or were filled by people who were not fully qualified for the position.
“Ultimately, what’s not really stated in there, is that there are about 120,000 kids who are being impacted directly by positions that are going unfilled this year,” said Kelton Davis, the regional superintendent for Monroe and Randolph counties, and chairman of the regional superintendents association.
The report said shortages were reported in almost every subject area, with foreign languages, various special education fields and computer science leading the list of classroom subjects. There were also significant shortages of school psychologists and library and media specialists.
Shortages were also reported in every region of the state, although they were more severe in Southern and Central Illinois than in the suburban districts around Chicago.
In Southern Illinois, 94 districts reported seeing “significantly fewer qualified applicants” than they did five years ago. That compares with 90 percent of the districts in Central Illinois; 78 percent in northwest Illinois; and only 42 percent in the Cook County and surrounding suburbs.
As a result of those shortages, the report said 99 districts reported canceling a total of 225 course offerings due to a lack of qualified teachers, while 86 districts reported converting more than 200 classes to online learning because they lacked a qualified teacher for the subject.
Davis, however, said he knows of many districts that have resorted to putting more students into a classroom, or using teachers who are working with a temporary license or an emergency substitute license to fill in gaps.
Nancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said it’s difficult to pinpoint all of the causes of the growing teacher shortage.
Thompson said whatever is being done to combat this trend is "not enough." This problem is at the feet of numerous key players some of which include the state board of education and higher education and state lawmakers, he said.
One of the factors, Latham said, is that there are more teachers from the “baby boom” generation now retiring than there are young people graduating from schools of education. And a big part of that, she said, is about money.
She noted that more than 90 percent of the vacancies reported in 2017 were in schools that received “below-adequate” funding and which had been reducing their staff in recent years.
While school funding is often considered part of the problem, Thompson thinks this shortage better speaks to the burdens on incoming teachers face to teach, though. He said the requirements for new teachers coming in is "so unreasonably tough."
The current state mandates for these teachers, often in the form of new test and assessments, are "running people off before they even reach a classroom," which is where officials feel quality of the prospective teacher is best decided, Thompson said.
Teaching is "still a rewarding career" but recent changes in licensing requirements, pensions and other areas might make it seem "not as attractive," Vilardo said.
"The demands on teachers have increased," he said. "It may not be as enticing a career."
In fact, the report referenced a 2018 poll by Phi Delta Kappa, a nationwide professional organization for educators, which found that 54 percent of the adults it surveyed said they would not want their children taking up teaching as a career – the first time a majority of respondents said that in the 50-year history of the survey.
Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, of Bunker Hill, commented about the report on Twitter, saying the report bolsters his argument in favor of a bill he is sponsoring to phase in an increase in the minimum wage for full-time teachers to $40,000 by the 2023-2024 school year.
However, there are many districts that could not afford to do that without significantly more state funding, or raising local property taxes, said Kelton Davis, the regional superintendent for Monroe and Randolph counties, and chairman of the regional superintendents association.
The report recommends the state take at least three steps to address the shortages: streamlining the process for obtaining substitute teacher licenses, especially for retired teachers who want to go back to work in their old districts; expanding programs for developing new teachers, such as the Grow Your Own Teacher program; and gathering more data to more accurately predict, by district, where shortages will occur and to identify unique challenges facing each district.
Skocy was hopeful the growing populations coming out of Eastern Illinois University, a large exporter of teachers in the state, will help supplement this shortage with qualified teachers.
Capitol News Service contributed to this report.