Teacher shortage defies federal windfall

More than money required to satisfy need, schools find

November 14, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Most school districts applauded last week's congressional agreement to set aside more than $1 billion for the hiring of additional teachers to reduce class sizes next year. But their experience this fall in spending a similar federal windfall has shown that it takes more than money to put an effective teacher in front of a classroom.

In some cases, just finding the classroom has been a struggle.

This fall, school districts began spending $1.2 billion that President Clinton and Congress allocated to poor and overcrowded districts as the first installment of Clinton's seven-year plan intended to recruit as many as 100,000 elementary school teachers.

But principals and superintendents have reported tripping over a number of hurdles: Many have had difficulty attracting qualified candidates, others have had to work hard to train those whom they have recruited, and still others have had little luck carving out space within crammed schools for new classes.

In New York City, for example, of the 808 teachers hired with the federal money this fall, only one of eight is presiding over a new class. Because of crowding, the other seven have been sent into existing classes, to teach in tandem with another teacher.

While installing an additional teacher has succeeded in cutting the teacher-student ratio in half, many classes continue to bulge, New York school officials said.

Smaller districts have often fared no better. Under the complicated formula for awarding the money, based on a district's enrollment and the number of students living below poverty, Raymondville, Mo., received $7,000, less than a third of what the small Ozark district needed to pay a teacher's salary. The district, where nearly three out of four students receive a free lunch, hired a part-time teacher's aide instead.

"Just the idea of stating, `We need more teachers,' is great," said Peter Magnuson, a spokesman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "But finding those teachers, training those teachers and getting those teachers up to speed and into the classroom takes time and space."

The federal funds have seemed to fall from the sky: Unlike most educational financing, which passes through state officials' hands, the money for new teachers has gone directly to the districts.

The president's plan is based on research suggesting that the greatest benefits from smaller classes comes in the poorest districts. The program would limit classes in the first, second and third grades to 18.

But the money has arrived in the midst of the worst teacher shortage in recent memory. Although there would be enough available teachers, if tallied nationally, to fill every available slot, districts have had difficulty persuading candidates to move from the Midwest, where there is a surplus of teachers, to inner-city districts and to Texas and California, where the need is greatest.

New York City hired 7,200 teachers, 800 more than would have been hired without the federal help, school officials said. Although the district has yet to break down the qualifications of the 800, only one of every two teachers hired overall this fall has proper certification.

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