Alaska is finding it harder and harder to recruit people who will take on the challenges of teaching in public schools. Alaska used to top national rankings for teacher pay, but no longer. That salary slippage has thinned the ranks of recruits from the Lower 48.
Alaska schools produce only 30 percent of newly hired teachers, so the state needs to compete nationally for classroom talent. The competition is not going well. At the end of July, less than a month before most teachers start work, the Alaska Teacher Placement Web site listed scores of openings across the state.
From Akiachak and Akhiok, to Napakiak and Napaskiak, to St. Paul and St. George, village schools were searching for qualified teachers. All told, more than 20 Bush communities -- from Diomede and Savoonga in the northwest, to Fort Yukon and Venetie in the northeast, to Larson Bay and Danger Bay on Kodiak Island -- still had teaching vacancies.
Urban schools were still looking, too. Mat-Su was desperate for math, special ed and English-as-second language teachers. Juneau had 13 openings.
Ideally, Alaska would grow most of our teachers instead of hiring Outside. That goal is a long way off, though. In the meantime, districts need more tools in their teacher recruitment toolbox.
The governor's education funding task force recommended early last year creating a loan forgiveness program for new teachers. A potentially useful proposal from Rep. Joe Green, covering only new loans at in-state schools, made it through the House without a dissenting vote. It never got a serious look on the Senate side. An even better proposal from Rep. Gretchen Guess, offering to retire up to $10,000 worth of loans for any newly hired teacher who hadn't previously worked in Alaska, never came close to reaching the House floor.
In both cases, the killer was cost. With the Senate refusing to do anything to fill the state's $1-billion a year fiscal gap, the Legislature had an easy excuse to reject any new obligations, regardless of how compelling the need.
The price for a loan-payoff incentive would have been no more than $1 million per 100 new teachers. That's a lot more targeted and cost-effective use of public funds than boosting salaries with an across-the-board raise for all teachers statewide.
Closing the teacher shortage requires more than just recruitment incentives, as state education officials well know. Once hired, new teachers don't always stay in the profession very long. To keep teachers aboard, the state is already encouraging schools to provide better orientation and better mentoring. Ensuring support from parents and the community as a whole, especially with discipline issues, is another important front in the battle against burning out new teachers.
The single most important thing a school can do to educate a child is provide a capable, motivated, effective teacher. Schools can't deliver a high-quality education without high-quality teaching. To get talented teachers, Alaska needs to become more competitive. A loan forgiveness program would be a smart investment for the next Legislature and governor to make.
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