- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina could recruit and keep more good teachers by forgiving student loans, paying teacher mentors a stipend and boosting some teachers’ salaries, a Senate study panel says.

Its leader, Sen. Wes Hayes, said Wednesday the state should focus such initiatives in rural districts where’s it’s particularly hard to fill classrooms with high-quality teachers. Rural districts pay less than their urban and suburban counterparts while also offering less in the community, senators said.

They discussed expanding loan-forgiveness programs, saying high debt may dissuade some students from a teaching career. Hayes, R-Rock Hill, called it a back-door way to pay more.

Current programs are limited and require education majors to apply upfront for loans that are forgiven over time as they teach. Sen. Brad Hutto said more would-be teachers should also be able to benefit from loan forgiveness or better rates on existing loans.

“People shouldn’t be penalized just because they decide later to be a teacher,” said Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

South Carolina ranks 10th highest nationwide in college debt, with students graduating from a four-year school with an average debt of nearly $30,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. South Carolina’s minimum pay for first-year teachers is just $29,500 a year, though many districts pay several thousand more.

The director of South Carolina’s Center for Teacher Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, known as CERRA, said the state should put more into mentoring new teachers and “homegrown” initiatives such as Teacher Cadet, which encourages high-achieving high school students to pursue teaching.

“The more we can recruit students to become teachers from a community, the more likely they are to go back to that community to teach,” said Jane Turner, director of CERRA, based at Winthrop University.

Mentoring programs can provide young teachers the support they need to be successful and prevent them from leaving the profession, Turner said. Senators discussed offering teachers deemed highly effective a stipend to be a mentor.

They also discussed boosting salaries for teachers in their first through 10th year of teaching, or paying teachers more in their final years of teaching. Under the state’s minimum salary schedule, step increases end at 22 years in the classroom. A teacher who holds a bachelor’s degree tops out at $45,400, and a master’s degree teacher tops out at $51,400. More prosperous districts, however, use local property taxes to continue to pay for additional years of experience.

Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she agrees teachers should be paid more in the early years. However, “we need to reward those who have made this their career” too, she said, noting some teachers have seen their take-home pay dwindle as the cost of benefits increased.

Hayes said the state could give districts the option of paying more on the front or back ends.

His panel gave no ranking and put no dollar figures to its general recommendations, which will be forwarded to the Senate Finance Committee. It did recommend requiring colleges and districts to work with the Education Oversight Committee to determine the state’s future need for teachers.

“Baby boomers are retiring,” said EOC director Melanie Barton. “We’re going to have a big retirement bulge in principals as well.”

According to CERRA, South Carolina’s colleges graduate about 2,000 education majors yearly - enough to fill half of the 4,000 annual openings. That means remaining slots must be filled by teachers from another state or country, people with alternative teaching certifications or substitutes - a situation more common in poor, rural schools. The state has no long-term projections that include expected retirements, Turner said.

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