Worthy idea in need of checks

Schools: Maryland's 'retire-rehire' law for teachers has been abused, but it has the merit to deserve a fresh start.

December 07, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

When Maryland allowed retired teachers to return to the classroom, praise quickly followed. The program would help address a dire teacher shortage in some places and steer top-notch educators to the neediest schools and most important subjects.

Veteran teachers would be given a financial incentive to return: They could keep their monthly pensions while collecting a regular salary.

"We know there are problems, and we do not wait until they are on our doorstep," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick declared in late 1999, after the General Assembly approved the law.

But Maryland's program for rehiring retired educators has created its own set of problems.

Prince George's County schools sharply cut back on rehirings this school year because many of those coming back were gym and music teachers. Those are subjects for which it is relatively easy to find teachers.

In Baltimore County, the mostly high-performing schools have benefited from the veteran teachers' expertise, and some of those giving up retirement weren't given the classroom responsibilities envisioned by lawmakers.

One county teacher tutors a seventh-grader in calculus. Another oversees mentors and a third, listed as a math teacher, mostly arranges students' schedules.

John L. Lindberg, 54, who was rehired and is drawing a total of about $102,000 a year, teaching three forensics classes at high-achieving Loch Raven High in the Towson area, said he considered working at one of the county's poor-performing middle schools. "But I'm not sure how many of the people would be willing to go to another school," he said.

But he thinks he helps the district in other ways. He leads his science department and pays more for health care than teachers who haven't retired. He has also given up his unused sick days.

The Maryland program's descent from good intentions to abuses suggests a danger in effectively using pension funds to deal with public policy issues, such as teacher shortages. It also illustrates the difficulty of finding enough capable teachers.

Retired Baltimore County teachers receive pensions of $30,000 and above. The salary for a rehired retiree is up to $67,209. The total $102,000 Mr. Lindberg is drawing to come out of retirement to teach and run a department, includes $62,571 in compensation above his pension. Without the legislated exemption, he and the other rehired teachers would have been compelled to give up part of their pensions.

Experts say pension funds are designed to provide for the retirement of their members. Any use beyond that opens the door to possible abuse.

"People need to understand that the purpose of the pension fund is to promote the financial security of the participants - period," said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

"Yes, there are some circumstances when other interests, such as economic development, teacher shortages and other worthy social causes, can align. But to me, any time a pension fund is used for another purpose, it has to be checked."

Educators and lawmakers agree that putting those checks into Maryland's teacher rehiring program is a better way to deal with abuses than scrapping the law, which is due to expire June 30. Lawmakers are now discussing how to write their intentions directly into the law.

"You can't legislate good behavior, but we are going to look at ways to reform this retire-rehire system that has the best intentions," said Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the General Assembly's pension committee.

The broad support to keep the law that exempts rehired retirees from pension penalties reflects the severity of the teacher shortage that the law is designed to help.

After all, Maryland's state board of education agreed to allow every school system in the state to rehire retired educators because they face the daunting job of filling as many as 11,000 positions each year.

Making the task of finding so many teachers all the more difficult are new federal requirements governing teacher quality. The No Child Left Behind Act demands placement of "highly qualified" teachers in poor-performing schools.

There just aren't enough of those teachers available.

"If all of our senior teachers who could retire did, we would be in a pretty tough situation," said Randall D. Grimsley, the Baltimore County schools' executive director of human resources.

Maryland's retire-rehire program wasn't meant to be a cure-all. It's part of a package of initiatives, including college scholarships for prospective teachers and provisional certification, that the state education department offers to recruit teachers.

Yet, it's considered a necessary part of the package.

"Our districts still have a critical shortage of teachers, and this is just one strategy to try to address that issue," said Lawrence E. Leak, a former assistant state superintendent.

Ultimately, the clamor to save the program illustrates how tough it will be for states such as Maryland to find all the teachers they need without relying on imperfect fixes like rehiring.

"Why would you want to be a teacher today?" asked Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Ancess, a former teacher and administrator in the New York City schools, said there's little incentive for bright, young students to become educators: Teachers aren't respected, must teach to tests and face punishment if students don't perform.

"Look at the facts," Ancess said. "If you can say you'd go to work in this culture - unless you can say yes - why would you expect anybody else to say yes?"

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