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Teacher hunt gets aggressive

Districts are raiding other states - even countries. Concerns arise over quality.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2000



HOUSTON

When Mark Cerja gives his spiel on the benefits of working for the Fort Worth public schools, he comes off like P.T. Barnum with a pointer.

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First, he pulls out his homemade charts showing the district's starting teacher salary ($35,000), plus the signing bonus ($2,000), along with the local cost of living - rent, food, taxes (no state income tax!). Then he'll show pictures of the home he and his wife built, the car they bought, and even his prized bass boat.

"When we go to job fairs, we aggressively pursue teachers," says Mr. Cerja, himself a recruit from Pittsburgh who teaches science in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Fort Worth public school system's approach to hiring bespeaks a new aggressiveness by districts across the land in the pursuit of classroom instructors.

Faced with one of the worst teacher shortages since the 1950s, schools are offering everything from cheap home loans to inflated salaries (relatively speaking) to lure new recruits. But beyond the incentives, districts are

getting bolder in their sales pitches, going across state lines and even country borders to find - even raid - instructors.

It's an assertiveness that is common in the high-tech and other fields, but is more foreign to the genteel world of teacher recruiting. "They tell me there's a bounty on my head in Oklahoma," laughs Terry Buckner, a recruiter for the Fort Worth Independent School District.

Districts have good reason to act. The lack of teachers is the result of three powerful but unrelated forces - demographic, economic, and political - that may be felt in schools for a generation. For teachers, the current shortage means more bargaining power and a higher standard of living. For schools, it may mean bringing in teachers with fewer qualifications.

"In the short term, it's going to give teachers more power - they can bargain for higher salaries and benefits because the districts need them," says Tom Loveless, an education expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But "it can't help but lower quality in states and localities where they are taking steps just to get warm bodies in the desks."

Dj vu all over again

In some ways, the current shortage mirrors the one that occurred in the 1950s, when the tidal wave of children known as the Baby Boom began arriving in schools. School districts and colleges began rounding up teachers to fill the classrooms, often giving them only weeks of in-class training before putting them in charge of the poodle-skirt and raccoon-hat set.

But while the current generation of teachers are now dealing with the Echo Boom, the children of those Baby Boomers, other factors have made this shortage more complicated than mere demographic shifts. Today's job market is far more open to women and minorities who once pursued a teaching certificate out of necessity. With more options, and with many teachers actively courted by high-tech companies and corporate training firms, public school districts often can't compete. In addition, many states such as California are mandating smaller class sizes, requiring even more teachers.