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Alabama teacher shortage looms

Rural districts already have a problem recruiting teachers, and the problem could spread soon

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Ohatchee coach Bryant Ginn

Ohatchee coach Bryant Ginn during practice on Friday at the school.   

On Saturday, when many people were sleeping in at the start of a three-day weekend, Bryant Ginn showed up at Ohatchee High School to work. At 8 a.m., there was baseball practice, followed by basketball practice; Ginn coaches both. And when classes resume next week, he’ll be in the classroom teaching math.

Ginn, who worked at a civil engineering firm while in college, knows that with a math degree he could be putting in fewer hours for more money.

“I felt that the Lord called me to do this,” said Ginn, who has taught at Ohatchee since 2012. “I have a passion for teaching kids, and for coaching.”

Teachers like Ginn are increasingly on the minds of state policymakers as Alabama continues to crawl back from the depths of the Great Recession. Lawmakers and education policy officials are expressing growing concern about the potential of a teacher shortage in the near future — a shortage that, in some places, is already here.

“I would say our enrollment is down 10 to 15 percent in the past three years,” said Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of education at the University of Alabama. Education colleges across the country are reporting the same problem, Hlebowitsh said. With fewer teachers in the pipeline, educators say, there could be a widespread shortage in the next few years.

Hlebowitsh and other educators cite a host of reasons for the drop in would-be teachers. The money isn’t good, compared to what college graduates could make in other fields. The relative security of teaching doesn’t hold as much appeal in an improving job market. And with years of budget tightness — with few raises and teachers paying more for benefits — the job doesn’t seem as secure as it used to.

Lawmakers cite that potential shortage as a driver behind some of the 2016 legislative session’s most talked- about bills. There’s a bill to raise teacher pay by 3 percent, and another proposal for 4 percent. The leader of the Senate, President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is working on a bill that could offer some teachers a higher rate of pay if they elect not to enter the teacher tenure system.

It’s hard to find a teacher who will reject the idea of higher pay, but it may take more than a raise to attract more people to the profession, Hlebowitsh says.

“Certainly salary increases would help, but better conditions would as well,” Hlebowitsh said. “Some of these schools are really tough places to work.”

Perennial shortfall

Asked whether there’s a teacher shortage already, state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice said that largely depends on where you live.

“The teacher shortage is contextual,” he said. “If you look at just numbers, we probably have enough teachers. The problem is, how do you get a teacher of mathematics, who was raised and lives in, say, Huntsville, to agree to go to Washington County to teach?”

Alabama is having trouble attracting teachers to rural schools, Bice said, and the problem is particularly acute with math and science teachers.

According to 2015 data reported to the state school board by local school districts, the state is short 86 high school math teachers, with a shortage of 93 teachers expected next year.

Most colleges of education produce handful of math teachers in any given year. Ginn said there were 12 math teachers in his graduating class at Jacksonville State University, a group he described as “the biggest class they’d seen in a while.”

Math is the only place Calhoun County Schools see a shortage, Superintendent Joe Dyar said, but that shortage is almost always there.

Dyar said he managed to get Ginn’s hiring approved just before a change to the state’s pension system went into effect. Like most long-time teachers, Ginn will be able to retire after 25 years. That 25-year rule allowed many teachers to retire in their late 40s or early 50s and find second careers.Teachers who started later in life could retire at 60, if they’d worked for at least 10 years.

An employee hired today can’t collect retirement until age 62.

“In the future, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “When those young teachers realize they’re going to have to work 40 years for their retirement, they’re going to think twice.”

The churn

Marsh has said that his pay raise and tenure bill, also known as the RAISE Act, will likely include incentives specifically for teachers in understaffed fields and rural areas. Just what those incentives will be is unclear; more than one draft of the bill has floated around Montgomery, but Marsh has yet to file a draft with the Senate.

“Since the last version, we’ve had more discussion with some of the stakeholders,” Marsh said last week. “We’ll be working on it through the weekend, and hopefully we’ll be in a position to have something introduced next week.”

The state school board cited teacher shortages last month when they approved an “adjunct instructor” policy that allows schools to hire teachers who don’t have state teaching certification.

State Education Department officials last week said the new policy has been used mostly to hire people who can teach work skills such as welding, as well as arts instructors.

Bice said he’s also hoping lawmakers will fund a new program, based on the UTEACH program in Texas, that will recruit promising math and science students in college and offer scholarships if they switch to teaching and commit to a few years in the classroom.

Keeping teachers beyond the first few years could be a key to solving the problem long-term, said Thomas Spencer, an analyst for the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a Birmingham think tank that studied teacher shortages last year.

“Teachers in their early years go where they can get a job,” Spencer said. “The most ambitious of them tend to move on to some place with better conditions. There tends to be a churn in the underperforming systems.”

PARCA’s study recommended bringing back a mentoring system that paid experienced teachers bonuses for mentoring new teachers. That program was lost to recession-era cuts. Bice said he’s asking for money to revive the program this year.

Ginn, the Ohatchee math teacher, said raises really would help recruit teachers if they were substantial, in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per year. That’s well beyond anything lawmakers have proposed. Ginn said better working conditions for teachers would make an even bigger difference.

“If I think I’m going to have 40 kids in one class, that can be really intimidating,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.