Each fall, Jack Moles travels throughout Nebraska to meet with school superintendents and school board members as part of his role as executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.
This year, he asked meeting attendees how many were unable to fill a teaching position.
Several hands would usually go up.
Then, he asked how many were unable to fill a position with a person certified or endorsed in the area they were teaching.
A lot more hands would go up.
“Usually over half,” Moles said.
The teacher shortage is real in rural Nebraska and many administrators are beginning to feel the effects.
According to the Nebraska Department of Education 2022-2023 Teacher Vacancy Survey report summary, more than 208 positions were left entirely vacant at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, while over 768 positions were unfilled with fully qualified personnel.
The previous year, only 68 positions were left vacant and 482 positions were unfilled with qualified personnel, though the survey response rate was also 18% lower in 2021.
The Teacher Vacancy Survey data only accounts for teachers in classrooms, but school districts are having trouble hiring other employees as well.
“It’s even compounded more when you look at how many people couldn’t provide for school bus drivers, for example, paraprofessionals, lunch room people,” Moles said. “Those people are really hard to find right now, in all schools, but especially in rural schools.”
Education Service Unit #13 administrator Laura Barrett said that retirement of older teachers is also contributing to the teacher shortage in the Nebraska panhandle.
Although the teacher shortage in Nebraska has gained more media attention in recent months, Moles said he believes the problem is still underreported.
“People say, ‘Yeah, we know there’s an issue,’ but they really don’t seem to get how big of an issue it is,” he said.
In Cambridge, a town of just over 1,000 residents in southwest Nebraska, public school principal Jarod Albers said his district has been fortunate to have qualified teachers in the classroom, but that open positions have had fewer applicants than in years past.
When Albers first became a teacher, he said he remembered a highly competitive hiring process, with 50 to 100 applicants for each open position across the state. In Cambridge, that number has dwindled significantly in recent years.
“If we get 10 applications for an elementary position, we feel like we’re doing really, really good because, for the most part, it’s less than that,” Albers said.
Cambridge has taken advantage of the transitional certification program at the University of Nebraska-Kearney to hire teachers who began their careers in other fields but later decided to become educators.
Albers also said Cambridge’s location has made it an easy district to attract teachers within the region because teachers do not have to travel as many backroads to get to other major towns, unlike other rural districts.
“Deep in my heart, I know we’re very, very fortunate,” he said.
But he also believes the teacher shortage will continue to be an issue.
“I feel like the situation hasn’t gotten as dire as it will be sometime here in the future,” he said.
Several members of the Nebraska Legislature have taken notice of the issue and introduced legislation offering a wide range of solutions to the teacher shortage this session. Moles, who represents 88,000 students and 219 member schools through his role as executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, identified eight bills aimed at alleviating the teacher shortage that he would support.
“I think some of our senators are really listening and they’re starting to get it,” Moles said.
These bills include Sen. Lynn Walz’s LB519, which would eliminate teacher certification fees, provide one-time retention bonuses and create a loan forgiveness program with extra benefits for teachers in rural or low-income districts.
Moles also supports Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s LB385, which would provide recruitment and retention grants of up to $5,000; Sen. Carol Blood’s LB413, which would call for Nebraska to enter into an interstate teacher mobility compact; and LB724 from Sen. Tony Vargas, which would eliminate the Praxis test as a requirement for Nebraska teachers.
“The Praxis test has nothing to do with identifying somebody who would be a good teacher,” Moles said. “I had some instances where I had people that I thought would be really good teachers, but they really struggled to pass the Praxis.”
Barrett did not want to give her support to any specific bill, but she is optimistic about the direction of the education bills in this year’s legislative session.
“There are a lot of really great ideas,” Barrett said. “There’s merit to most of them, so I would love to see the Legislature look at how we take the best of the different ideas and put it together.”