- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

Maryland and Virginia are bracing for a wave of teacher retirements over the next couple of years that could exacerbate an already existing shortage of educators.

In Maryland, 29,000 of the 50,000 public-school teachers more than half the total work force will be eligible for retirement in 2002. The number of retiring teachers is expected to triple that year to 3,600, according to state education officials.

And while no one expects a mass exodus, it paints a troubling picture of overcrowded classrooms led by educators with fewer qualifications and less experience.

"Not all of them will go, but there is a fear about the numbers," said Ronald Pieffer, assistant superintendent of Maryland schools.

In Virginia, there is a projected 30 percent increase in teacher retirements this year, according to an as-yet unreleased survey on the supply and demand for teachers conducted last fall by the Virginia Department of Education.

According to the survey, 2,568 of Virginia's 90,000 public-school teachers will retire this month after the 1999-2000 school year up from 1,966 the previous academic year. But the total number could be even higher, said Patty Pitts, director of teacher education and licensure with the Virginia Department of Education, since only 126 of the state's 132 school divisions responded to the survey.

The District of Columbia, meanwhile, is not predicting any major shortfalls. According to Denise Tann, a spokeswoman for the D.C. public schools, the number of retirees rises and falls from year to year. "The changes are sporadic," she said.

The increase in retirements was inevitable: The teaching field swelled when older baby boomers took jobs in the late 1960s, and they are now becoming eligible for retirement, Mr. Pieffer said.

In Virginia, the increase may also be up because of an early-retirement package offered by the state. Following a change in Virginia laws last year, teachers 50 and older with 30 years of service can retire with full benefits.

"A lot of teachers are taking advantage of that," said Kevin Bell, a spokesman for the state department of education. The new law made 1,600 more teachers in the state eligible for retirement, but no statistics were available on how many teachers had taken advantage of it.

Critics of the package, like Mark Glaser, a special-education teacher at Thomas A. Edison High School in Fairfax County, Va., say it is designed to attract younger and therefore "cheaper" employees.

"You need to pay a new teacher far less than an experienced one," he said.

Mr. Glaser also said that instead of working harder to retain teachers who wanted to retire, schools turned them away with low salaries and heavy workloads.

"I've had to work two jobs all my life," said Mr. Glaser, who has been a classroom teacher during his 27-year career, including 18 years at Edison.

Despite his criticism of the retirement package, Mr. Glaser said he will take it when he becomes eligible in three years. He loves teaching, he said, but would not consider returning to the classroom even if the state offered incentives to retirees to return.

"I have a lot of other interests that I would like to spend some time on," he said.

Debra Masnik, a former teacher at Edgar Allan Poe Middle School in Fairfax County who opted for retirement last year after 25 years in the county, said she had found it increasingly difficult to cope with the greater demands on teachers and the lack of compensation to go with it.

In Fairfax, she said, "the growing reason for retirement is that the county requires so much that it is unreal."

Maryland and Virginia officials say they are taking several steps to fight the high retirement rates, including attracting more new graduates from teaching schools and introducing mentor programs for new teachers to keep them in the profession.

One major problem, however, is the low pay. Mr. Glaser said that to attract more teachers into the profession, salaries need to be increased.

The average starting salary for a new teacher in Maryland is $27,605 and in Virginia, $25,777, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Only 50 percent of students graduating from teaching colleges in Maryland take jobs in the state, and in Virginia 42 percent of graduating teachers leave there.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed bills raising teachers' salaries by 10 percent over the next two years. Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill that that would allow retired teachers to return to the classroom on contract without losing retirement benefits.

Last year, Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III introduced a plan to develop a new license allowing business executives, retired military personnel and others to teach in public schools, despite criticism that it would lower standards.

Officials, however, said that parents did not have to worry about relaxed standards in teacher recruitment.

"Relaxing standards would be the wrong way to go," said Mark Christie, a member of the Virginia Board of Education.

The alternative routes to licensure, he said, would mean trying to recruit teachers who had not necessarily been to teacher colleges, but who had degrees in the subject they would teach in addition to several years of experience working in the field. The plan is still in the initial stages.

The problem of high rates of retirement and difficulty in recruitment is not unique to the region. A Metropolitan Education Research Consortium survey found that currently, 33 percent of the teaching staff in the country is 50 or older and will soon be eligible for retirement. The survey also found that only about 60 percent of newly prepared teachers enter the field after graduation.

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