(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

When some Indiana schools had trouble finding enough qualified teachers to fill open jobs in 2015, it wasn’t the first time, but it did seem to be the first time the problem captured wide attention.

Ever since news broke in that July that state teaching licenses and teachers college enrollment were down from years past, educators, community leaders and policymakers have been organizing all manner of meetings, panels and proposed legistlation to try to find ways to attract teachers to the state and get those already in the classroom to stay.

But not every school or district is having trouble hiring, and data on whether the state is seeing a true teacher shortage is inconclusive and doesn’t span every region or subject. Some researchers even say the notion that there are teacher shortages, both in Indiana and across the nation, have been vastly overstated for years.

It could be that in some parts of Indiana there is a mismatch between certified teachers with the right expertise or training and the available jobs, rather than too few certified teachers in general.

Even so, some Indiana schools have definitely struggled to hire teachers to fill open positions. Typically, urban, high-poverty schools and those in rural areas have the hardest time attracting teachers. There are also generally fewer applicants for jobs teaching science, math, foreign language and special education.

In 2015, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz put together a 49-member panel to devise strategies to recruit and retain teachers. Separately, lawmakers gathered to hear from policy experts on teacher labor markets. Finally, Republican leaders in the statehouse proposed an early draft of a bill to reward aspiring teachers with free college tuition.

But by the end of the year, no one solution had broad support. Many educators, including the largest teachers union in the state, joined Ritz in calling for the rollback of reforms adopted in 2011 that discouraged districts from using traditional teacher pay scales and banned automatic raises to teachers who earned master’s degrees.

Others prefer widening the state’s “talent pipeline,” by focusing more on persuading high school and college students to pursue teaching as a career.

Still others have a more specific angle — recruiting more minority students to teaching programs, creating mentoring programs and new career paths for new and veteran teachers and making it easier for teachers to transfer their licenses from other states to Indiana.

There are lots of suggestions, but little decisive action just yet.

Complicated data collection

Using data to try determine whether Indiana has a teacher shortage is complicated, and it’s very easy to misinterpret.

Changes to reporting rules and how data is collected both in the state by the education department and nationally through college submissions, for example, made some data sets slightly different and difficult to compare.

Isolating data on just licensed teachers prior to 2009 has proved especially difficult. Federal data from 2000 to 2012 show a relatively stable number of teachers, but the number of state licenses tells a different story.

From 2014 to 2015, 21 percent fewer educators received first-time licenses. The drop is 33 percent since 2009-10 — 3,802 licenses were issued in 2014-15, down from 5,685 in 2009-10.

But that data includes licensed educators who aren’t classroom teachers, such as administrators and other staff, and new information from 2015. For those reasons, it differs from numbers the department cited earlier in the summer of 2015, showing an 18.5 percent decline in first-time teaching licenses between 2009-10 and 2013-14.

Some districts raised alarms that they couldn’t fill jobs in 2015 that were easily filled in years past, like Greensburg schools, a rural district headed by Superintendent Tom Hunter.

Yet others, such as Wayne Township, have less than a handful of teachers leaving each year.

Attracting aspiring teachers

Also raising concern in 2015 that Indiana was facing a major teacher shortage was a decline in the number of college students studying to become teachers.

But some of the college enrollment data cited in earlier reports didn’t show true drops. Rather, dips in the numbers could be explained by changes in federal reporting requirements. Some reports counted only licenses issued, rather than people certified. As teachers can be certified in multiple subjects, those comparisons don’t always paint the clearest picture.

According to information from the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, there was a 37 percent decline in students completing teacher preparation programs from 2004 to 2014, but that doesn’t include teachers from alternative preparation programs such as Teach For America or The New Teacher Project.

Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry released a proposal in 2015 to encourage students to go into teaching by paying for four years of college tuition. The idea gained traction with Republican lawmakers. House Speaker Brian Bosma said House Bill 1002 would include many of Hendry’s ideas in 2016.

But there would be key differences. For example, teachers would have to teach for five years, not four, to get tuition paid, and the program would begin in 2017, not 2016.

Hendry estimated the plan would cost $4.5 million, but Bosma did not put a price tag on his plan or elaborate on exactly how it might work. He did say he didn’t think funding concerns would keep such a measure from moving forward, even though 2016 is not a budget year.

Keeping teachers in the classroom

Perhaps the most overlooked part of the problem is retaining existing educators. Many education policy researchers identify that as the biggest challenge to maintaining a strong teaching force.

According to education department data, Indiana school districts brought back about 80 percent, or four out of five, of their teachers the next year in the same schools between 2012-13 and 2013-14. In Marion County, 73.6 percent of teachers returned to the same school in the second year, but IPS was far lower at 61.3 percent.

“Retention,” however, doesn’t just refer to teachers who either choose to stay in teaching or leave the profession altogether. If a teacher switches districts or retires, that person counts against a district’s retention rate. Indiana’s retention rate is at about 80.8 percent, according to state data, but that number likely underestimates the number of teachers still teaching because it doesn’t count those who switched schools or finished their careers.

In Indiana, rapidly changing education policy and teacher expectations have led to increasing dissatisfaction among educators. In Ritz’s panel meetings, state education department staff identified three main reasons why teachers might leave: training, working conditions and pay and the public’s perception of teachers.

Pay, naturally, is a big sticking point.

From 2012 to 2015, the state reported that teacher pay increased by between 8 and 9 percent for teachers with up to seven years of experience. But after that point, pay fell for more experienced teachers, eventually plateauing for those with about 20 years in the classroom.

The average salary for a first-year teacher was $37,044 in 2015, up from $33,530 in 2012. Inflation between 2012 and 2015 was just more than 4 percent nationally.

But money isn’t the only thing that can affect whether teachers are happy with their jobs. School climate, such as whether there is good discipline and leadership, and the opportunity for additional training and support mean a lot, too.

One principal at Wayne Township’s Chapelwood Elementary School, Heather Pierce, said that was a main priority for her. The school has a program through which veteran and new teachers can collaborate and another just for new teachers to help them acclimate to their jobs.

It’s that kind of deliberate, readily available support, Pierce said, that makes her teachers stick around.

Looking ahead to 2016, it’s unclear how the legislature will try to address the problem. In 2014, bills promoting a well-regarded program known as National Board Certification were never discussed despite strong support from the Indiana State Teachers Association and from Ritz. The Indiana Department of Education announced earlier this week that teachers seeking certification or already-certified teachers who want to mentor others are eligible to apply for grants to support their work. More than $30,000 is available, the department said in a statement.

Bosma said he plans to introduce his bill when the session begins in January of 2016. Ritz’s panel’s suggestions will be sent to legislative leaders after a final round of editing.

However, Ritz pointed out that legislators might not be completely on-board, as many of the panel’s ideas stand in opposition to decisions lawmakers have made about teacher pay and similar issues in recent years.

-Updated December 2015