State moves to overcome teacher gap

Series of bills aims to attract and retain Maryland educators

`It's all about money'

Nearly 11,000 hires must be made by the 2001-2002 school year

April 16, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Gady A. Epstein | Thomas W. Waldron and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Maryland may have moved closer to addressing a looming teacher shortage with sweeping education bills approved the past two years, including during the just-concluded legislative session.

The most important measure, they say, was passed shortly before midnight Monday, in the final hour of this year's session: a state-supported pay raise for teachers designed to increase salaries by 10 percent over two years. Educators say that will help school systems tackle the biggest obstacle to attracting and keeping teachers.

"Anything that impacts salary is going to help," said Carl Roberts, superintendent of the Cecil County public schools. "Sometimes you dance around the subject when the major issue is: `How much am I going to get paid?' "

Like states across the country, Maryland is on the verge of a major teacher shortage -- thanks to climbing school enrollments and a flood of veteran teachers reaching retirement eligibility.

School systems in Maryland will need to hire almost 11,000 teachers for the 2001-2002 school year, according to the state education department.

Maryland colleges graduate about 2,600 prospective teachers a year, about half of whom leave the state or the profession. That leaves Maryland schools with the task of attracting nearly 10,000 teachers from out of state a year from now.

For two years, the issue has been high on the agenda in Annapolis.

The legislature passed a package of incentives last year to attract teachers to the profession and to the toughest schools, as well as a change to allow retired teachers to return to the classroom without forfeiting benefits.

This year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening won legislative approval for two initiatives.

One increases the maximum annual HOPE scholarship for college students studying education from $3,000 to $5,000.

"Hallelujah," said Edna M. Szymanski, dean of education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

She said anything the state can do to help students choose teaching over other, better-paid professions is important.

"The scholarships go a long way to support any altruistic instincts these kids might have," Szymanski said.

The second bill creates an incentive for local school systems to increase their teachers' pay by 4 percent annually over the next two years. Any school system that does so will receive a 1 percent match from the state, driving the raises to 5 percent each year.

It is unusual for the state to step in to boost teacher pay scales, since that matter is usually left to the individual school districts.

While other issues affect a teacher's satisfaction with the job, the most important factor will continue to be salary, said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

"In the end, it's all going to be about money," Beytin said. "We've got some young kids out there who would make wonderful teachers, and they look at the dollar amounts and pick other professions."

John K. Rentch Jr., a science teacher at Annapolis High School with 32 years of experience, said the prospect of a 10 percent raise might be enough to keep him in the classroom an extra couple of years.

"It certainly would go a long way to help," said Rentch, 55, who had been thinking of retiring in two years, when his youngest son graduates from college. "I would definitely think about hanging in and staying some extra time if the pay raise would stay in effect."

Anne Arundel County officials are weighing salaries for teachers for the coming school year.

A package of incentives crafted by state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and approved last year by the General Assembly provides for $1,000 signing bonuses for new teachers who stay employed in Maryland for three years.

The state has also committed millions of dollars this year to provide mentoring for young teachers, to reduce class sizes in early grades and to help underachieving students catch up.

Efforts designed to increase student achievement also help keep teachers in the profession, said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"We lose teachers because of their frustration over their ability to be successful with kids," Pence said.

Some counties are hoping to draw retired teachers back to the classroom in poorly performing schools -- now a more viable option, thanks to a law passed last year.

More than 300 retired teachers have opted to return. Nearly all were in Prince George's County schools, which have offered high salaries to such teachers.

Education advocates have been critical of the state's efforts to attract teachers. The governor's call for across-the-board 10 percent raises only exacerbates pay-scale discrepancies among neighboring counties, they say.

As for the HOPE scholarships, advocates question the wisdom of awarding them only to students who attend Maryland colleges. Why not give them to a teaching student in any state who wants to work in Maryland after graduation, asked Catherine Brennan, education director for Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth.

"I would encourage people to stop thinking about education funding and strategies for recruiting teachers in a piecemeal way," Brennan said. "It needs to be part of a larger strategy."

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