Faced with the prospect of broad cuts as states fall deeper into deficit, many school districts nationwide can look to at least one positive trend: an easing of the teacher shortage this year.
From Buffalo, N.Y., to the San Francisco Bay Area, a host of cities and states are finding more qualified teachers - at a time when the shortage was expected only to grow more severe.
The economy has played a part, as workers seek more secure jobs and cuts leave fewer positions to fill. Americans' post-Sept. 11 desire for more meaning has driven some to teaching, as well. But a new emphasis on recruiting and retention is also showing encouraging results.
The development is of crucial importance to American education. The success of education reforms across the country - from smaller class sizes to standardized testing - depends largely upon having enough good teachers in the classroom. Indeed, states could lose billions in federal money if they do not meet new teacher standards.
Not every city has had a problem, but the shortages in some areas remain far from over.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," says Mildred Hudson, head of Recruiting New Teachers in Belmont, Mass. But "districts are learning from each other and incorporating lessons learned."
Among the signs of progress:
• Buffalo has reduced its number of uncertified teachers by more than one-third since March. School officials there hope to have every teacher certified by next school year.
• New York City hired more than 8,000 new teachers for this school year, nearly filling a teacher shortage that had persisted for years. And 90 percent of the new teachers were certified, up from 50 percent in 2001.
• Atlanta-area school officials point to Gwinnett County as an indicator of their improving fortunes. Last July, they needed 200 teachers for the coming year. This July, the number was 92.
• Hawaii's Education Department reports 136 teacher vacancies this year, down from more than 400 last year.
• California saw the number of credential waivers it handed out - allowing uncertified Californians to teach as an emergency stopgap - drop by 17 percent between 2000 and 2001. In Oakland, the number of uncertified teachers dropped from 540 in late 1999 to 35 at the start of this school year.
To educators, the trend is encouraging. But they strike a strong note of caution. Chronic shortfalls in teachers for special education, math, and science continue, as do shortages in inner cities and rural areas.
Some places have simply lowered their standards to fill slots, critics add, and even so, the need for teachers remains higher than normal across the board.
The latest figures, however, show improvement.
A study that ranks demand for teachers on a scale of 1 to 5 - 1 being almost no demand and 5 being extremely high - puts 2002 at 3.45, still in the range of a teacher shortage. But last year, the figure was 3.68, the highest in recent memory.
"2001 was a peak year, no doubt about it," says B.J. Bryant of the American Association for Employment in Education in Columbus, Ohio, which compiled the data.
A common thread binds many of the districts that have seen the greatest decline in teacher shortages: a sense of urgency. Through far-flung recruiting, better counseling and support, or significant pay hikes - or sometimes all three - they have put higher priority on getting and keeping qualified teachers.
Here in California, that has meant more state-sponsored incentives for teachers, such as loan forgiveness or helping on a down payment for a house. It has meant ramping up universities to produce 8 percent more credentialed teachers than last year. And it has spawned regional recruiting centers to help people through the credentialing process and support them once they're in classrooms.
IN THE past, states have lured teachers with bonuses and incentives, only to see them flee for better-paying jobs when economic times improve.
Officials here, though, hope the comprehensive system they're creating will generate more committed educators.
The rise in the number of teachers is "equal parts public policy and equal parts economy," says Margaret Fortune, executive director of the Northern California Regional Recruitment Center in Sacramento. "But we will come back into a healthier economy with a larger teacher corps."
She knows she can't afford to be wrong. A 1997 state program limited class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to no more than 20 students per certified teacher. Now the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law requires that all teachers be "highly qualified" at public schools that get federal money for low-income students.
California still falls short of that standard, risking $1 billion in federal money. As a result, educators here - as elsewhere - are desperate to ensure that the current trend continues, even amid shrinking budgets.
Says recruitment official Ms. Fortune: "To the extent that we prepare more credentialed teachers ... the school district is in a better position to meet federal requirements."