- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Stemming South Carolina’s growing teacher shortage will require persuading teachers not to leave the profession, education officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

More than 6,000 public school teachers didn’t return to their classroom last year, while the number of college students earning an education degree shrunk to fewer than 1,900. And those numbers could worsen. A survey of last spring’s graduating high school seniors showed just 5 percent had any interest in becoming a teacher.

“It’s pretty clear we’ve got a significant issue,” said Jane Turner, director of the state’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

Districts statewide must do more to help new teachers transition from college to career. Mentoring programs for new teachers are key to bridging the gap, but most districts are unable to offer experienced teachers a stipend or extra time to be a mentor, Turner said.

Last school year, her agency distributed $6.9 million to 30 districts with the highest teacher turnover, mostly in poor, rural areas.

About $800,000 of that went toward mentoring programs. The biggest chunk of nearly $4.7 million funded salary stipends of up to $1,500 per teacher for those newly hired or teaching hard-to-fill subjects. More than $1 million reimbursed teachers for graduate-level courses or paid for other training. The least amount - $17,400 - went toward high school teacher recruitment programs.

They were among the districts’ spending options through a program first approved last year in the state budget. Qualifying districts posted an average, five-year teacher turnover rate of at least 11 percent. Several exceeded 25 percent.

It’s too early to know whether the incentives are reducing turnover or which options helped the most, Turner said. Her center’s annual report on teacher vacancies will come out in January.

Another option is newly available this school year. Teachers can get up to $5,000 of their student loans forgiven annually, for up to seven years, to potentially erase $35,000 worth of debt if they stay in the high-turnover districts.

“If you’re a first-year teacher struggling and also have a $350 to $500 teacher loan payment, that makes a significant difference in your net pay,” Turner said. She did not immediately know how many teachers applied over the summer for the first round.

Turner addressed a Senate panel tasked with recommending ways to address the state Supreme Court’s 2014 order to improve educational opportunities for students in poor, rural districts that initially sued the state 24 years ago.

The state’s high court did not tell legislators what to do. Instead, justices ordered lawmakers and educators to work together to fix issues including decrepit buildings, an inability to attract and keep good teachers in poor districts, and inadequate busing that forces students to endure hours-long commutes. The order also faulted state funding formulas, which date to 1977, as an outdated, fractured “scheme.”

Differences in districts’ tax base affect state distributions and how much they can raise locally for schools, helping explain why spending ranges from $8,700 per student to $21,800, when including federal, state and local sources. Further complicating local spending is a 2006 state law that removed school operating expenses off the property taxes of owner-occupied homes.

The state School Boards Association again laid out its now-seven-year-old proposal to fund schools through a new, statewide property tax. The idea would roll back local property taxes across the state while allowing rural districts with little tax base to benefit from industry elsewhere. It would also simplify distribution, with districts receiving money based on their student population.

“Some districts have twice as much money to spend as other districts,” said attorney Bick Halligan, a former Richland 1 school board member. “The system is so complicated, nobody can explain it simply. Few people understand how the different parts relate.”


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