Who's going to teach the children of the baby-boomers?

Where do new teachers come from? It's a question we've almost forgotten how to ask. Our attention, over the last decade, has instead been riveted on declining student enrollments and empty classrooms. We've been told that the children of the postwar baby boom have already been sluiced through the system. We've watched school buildings turn into condominiums. And if we've heard about droves of teachers retiring, or bailing out into more rewarding careers -- well, that's supply adjusting to demand.

What we've overlooked is a fact well known to demographers: Baby booms have echoes. The children of the '50s are now the parents of the '80s. They marry later and have smaller families, to be sure. But they constitute a ``parentboom'' whose numbers are already turning the educational trend lines inside out.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the initial reversal of the decade-long enrollment came in the fall of 1983, when the first wave of parent-boom children hit first grade. In 1984-85, according to a survey of state education departments by the National Education Association, total enrollments in elementary grades jumped by 54,000 -- the first increase they had reported in 14 years. By 1993, says NCES, enrollments in the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade (K-8) years will hit 30.5 million -- a 15 percent increase over the 26.6 million expected to enroll next fall.

For a nation that loves children and builds for the future, that's good news. But who's going to teach them? For just as enrollments are rising, the supply of teachers is falling -- precipitously. Again, NCES projections shed sobering light. Between 1975 and 1979, the nation needed an aggregate of only 784,000 teachers -- but had a supply of 998,000. From 1980 to '84, supply and demand essentially broke even. Between 1985 and '89, the nation will need 123,000 more teachers than it will be able to find. It will need 78,000 more in 1993 alone.

Can they be found? Perhaps -- but at what price? According to the NEA, the average elementary school teacher earns about $23,000 a year. A recent NEA-commissioned Gallup poll claims to have found solid support for raising that figure into the $27,000 range -- although the NEA's admission that it withheld some of the poll's findings raises serious doubts about the context in which the questions were asked. That point, however, may be moot: The abstract desire to raise teachers' pay is one thing; the reality of raising taxes in an overtaxed society is another.

Yet as long as salaries remain at current levels, the potential teacher will continue to be drawn toward other lines of work. What can be done? How can we avoid becoming a nation of households whose children are taught by those who cannot afford to have either houses or children? Raise teachers' pay, of course. But maybe individual communities can do other things as well.

What would happen, for example, if teachers were granted something like the status of diplomats and the prerogatives of senior citizens? What if their cars bore decals allowing them special parking privileges in their communities? What if local shops and restaurants granted them the kinds of discounts available to the elderly? What if art museums and cultural organizations and theaters and cinemas gave them free memberships? What if the local newspaper and the local cable-television operator gave them preferential rates?

In other words, what would happen if a group of local movers and shakers got together and said, ``We want to attract the very best teachers we can. We want them to put down roots and feel loyal to the community. But we can't pay much in dollars. So we're putting together a package of perks that recognizes how much we value our teachers -- a package that helps them make ends meet, that plugs them squarely into the community, and that reminds them day by day how much we value their services.''

Self-interested? Perhaps. Maybe some businesses will be able to write off their contributions to the teachers on their taxes. Maybe some teachers will shop locally instead of going to the mall in the next town. Maybe they'll go to more theater, see more art, read more about local affairs -- and maybe those interests will rub off onto their classes.

But the most important payoffs will be for the teachers themselves -- not only in valuable compensation, but in respect, appreciation, and self-worth. Without those things, no teacher can hope to teach well. With them, a little money goes a lot further.

A Monday column

TABLES: Projected public student enrollments, K-8 (in millions)

School year beginning:

1984 26.65

1985 26.64

1986 26.89

1987 27.29

1988 27.78

1989 28.31

1990 28.93

1991 29.46

1992 30.03

1992 30.48

Projected teacher demand and supply (K-12, public and private, five-year totals)

School years Demand Supply


1975-79 784,000 998,000

1980-84 717,000 720,000

1985-89 833,000 710,000

Source for both tables: National Center for Education Statistics 30 {et

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