Teacher hunt gets aggressive

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Texas typifies the gap. Last January, the state Board of Educational Certification released a report showing that there would be 44,000 openings in public schools, and only 16,000 new teachers entering the profession. The rest would have to come from out of district, out of state, and in some cases, out of the country.

It's a situation that could lead to a massive shift in teachers from low-paying states to higher-paying ones. "I think we're going to see a whole lot more mobility among teachers than we've seen in the past," says Kathy Christie, an education analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Already states are responding, sometimes in creative ways.

Wisconsin and Washington offer programs to forgive college loans for teachers who work in inner city or needy districts.

Mississippi and other southern states offer to help teachers secure home loans.

Virginia, Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina are speeding up the certification of people who come from other professions.

And then there's the money. Some local school districts, like Fort Worth, offer signing bonuses. Some pay premiums, similar to hardship pay, for those who teach math, science, bilingual education, or special education, and for those teaching in difficult neighborhoods. Oklahoma recently passed a bill giving an across-the-board $3000 pay raise for teachers, a year after Texas passed its own $3000 pay raise.

In Fort Worth, one of the most aggressive districts in the country, recruiters travel to 100 job fairs in some 20 states. They target areas where pay levels are lower or where education graduates are more plentiful. They also travel abroad, as far away as Spain, to recruit bilingual teachers to serve the city's growing immigrant population. The strategy has worked. In a district with 78,000 students, only 35 teaching positions remained unfilled at the start of the school year.

Let's recruit in Spain

Even smaller districts, such as the leafy Houston suburb of Spring Branch, go far and wide for teachers. The result is seen in the bilingual teachers hired from Spain, the science teachers hired from local petrochemical firms, and in Jennifer Tipton's sixth-grade English class.

Today's assignment is a reading lesson on the Navajo Code Talkers. Miss Tipton runs a few arithmetic equations to show that some members of this secretive group within the US Marine Corps are probably still alive today and in their 70s. She discusses the value of a good foxhole. And she struggles to maintain control over an exuberant, but well-behaved mainly Hispanic class. It's just another day for this former manager from a pharmaceutical company.

"I knew from the moment I stepped into the class that this was my calling," says Tipton, who turned down a raise at her pharmaceutical firm to become a teacher. What convinced her to come had a lot to do with an interview she had with her principal. "I knew there was more to life than making money. I think there's a great need in this community, and some great things are going to happen to this school."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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