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Bills to create scholarships for rural teachers, one-time raises for retirees and benefit change

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MONTGOMERY — Legislation in the Alabama Senate would give scholarships to students seeking to be STEM or special education teachers in Alabama if they agree to teach in rural areas. It was one of several bills related to teachers' benefits that advanced Wednesday in the State House.

Senate Bill 225 is sponsored by Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, who said it's meant to encourage rural students to go to college and then teach in the areas they're originally from.

“It would be a motivating factor to try and get someone to go to school who might otherwise not from a rural school and those are the same people who are more likely to go back to that same area to teach,” Stutts told Alabama Daily News.

The bill passed with no opposition in the Senate Education Policy Committee on a voice vote.

The bill would allow scholarships for first-year in-state college students who are planning to become a certified science, technology, engineering, math or special education teacher in grades 7 through 12. Recipients would have to pledge to teach in a rural area for at least five years. They'd have to finish their degrees within four years, but could receive the scholarships each year.

The bill makes the Alabama Commission on Higher Education responsible for administering the scholarships and limits the number to 200 scholarships given at any one time.

An accompanying fiscal note says the 2022 fall semester is when the first 50 scholarships can be given and has an estimated cost of $520,000. If all 200 scholarships are given the estimated cost is $2.08 million.

Stutts said he primarily worked with Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, for more than a year on the bill that's modeled on similar scholarships given to nursing or medical students.

“The concept here is to lock them in to making a commitment to the state of Alabama that once they complete their degree that they will work here in Alabama,” Hollingsworth told ADN.

Stutts said that the scholarships would be funded through the comprehensive gambling legislation that passed through the Senate Tuesday night. That bill is now on its way to the House.

Stutts did say to committee members on Tuesday that there may be “a lot that has to be worked out on the bill.”

Alabama is currently facing a teacher shortage crisis, especially with STEM and special education teachers. More than 3,000 sixth through 12th-grade math and science teachers in Alabama classrooms are not fully certified, Hollingsworth said.

The Senate has already approved Senate Bill 327, which creates a program to offer increased pay to middle and high school math and science teachers who meet certain qualifications. Additional money would also be available to those teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools.

Bill sponsor Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said his proposed program would mean $15,000 more per year for participating teachers, depending on where they live. The bill requires that participating educators give up the option of tenure that would otherwise be available to them.

The pay increases for math and science teachers will cost an estimated $100 million per year.