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By PETER HANCOCK

Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD — The shortage of teachers in Illinois has gotten more serious over the past year, reaching into virtually every subject area and region of the state, and forcing schools to either cancel programs, enlarge class sizes or use teachers who are not fully licensed in a particular subject area.

Those are the conclusions of a new report released Monday from the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, which was based on survey responses from 527 of the 858 district superintendents in Illinois.

Of those, 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.

Nearly two-thirds of those responding (63 percent) also reported having a "serious shortage" of substitute teachers.

As a result, the superintendents who responded to the survey reported a total of 1,032 positions that hadn't 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.

Shortages were reported in almost every subject area, with foreign languages, various special education fields and computer science leading the list. 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 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, said it's difficult to pinpoint all of the causes of the growing teacher shortage.

One of the factors, she 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.

But another factor, she said, is that the teaching profession no longer has the same kind of allure it once enjoyed.

"If you look at the national media reports over the last five years, the profession has taken a hit," she said.

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.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, referenced the report on Twitter, saying it 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 2023-24 school year.

Davis, however, said there are many districts that could not afford to do that without significantly more state funding, or raising local property taxes.

The report recommends the state take at least three steps to address the shortages:

— Streamline the process for obtaining substitute teacher licenses, especially for retired teachers who want to go back to work in their old districts.

— Expand programs for developing new teachers, such as the Grow Your Own Teacher program.

— Gather more data to more accurately predict, by district, where shortages will occur and to identify unique challenges facing each district.

Capitol News Illinois is a newly created nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.