Legislators seek answers to teacher shortage

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- Rich Kronberg got a big raise 20 years ago when he moved from New York to Anchorage for a job as a special education teacher. If he moved back today, he'd get another.

At one of his old districts in Yonkers, N.Y., a starting teacher with no experience earns $40,000, Kronberg said. A teacher with 15 years in the system, a master's degree and 30 additional credits earns $85,000.

Teachers at the top of the pay scale in Anchorage make about $62,000, he said.

''I'm not a numbers person, but those numbers show we are no longer competitive,'' said Kronberg, president of NEA-Alaska.

The House Special Committee on Education, headed by former teacher Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, will take testimony this week on why Alaska faces a shortage of qualified teachers.

Finding and keeping teachers, especially those who teach math and special education, is a problem nationwide. Some districts in Alaska are finding it impossible. Two months into the school year, a review of the Alaska Teacher Placement Web site shows vacancies remaining for a special education teachers in Savoonga and Bethel, a reading specialist in Ketchikan, a third-grade teacher in Craig, to name a few.

Not so long ago, certified teachers had to work as substitutes for a year or more before they were hired for full-time jobs, Bunde said.

''I doubled my salary coming from Washington state,'' Bunde said of his own hiring.

He acknowledges that Alaska is not as competitive as it was. But he wants to hear of ways to attract teachers other than money.

''Money isn't the only answer,'' he said. ''If someone's a sun worshipper, there isn't enough money to make you live in 50 below.''

His committee is likely to hear that money is a consideration, if only for increasing the pool of teaching candidates to choose from.

''It's really pretty simple,'' said Roger Norris-Tull, dean of the School of Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. ''Adjusted for inflation, we are fortieth out of 50 for beginning teachers.''

Kronberg cited national research performed at the University of Pennsylvania for why teachers leave their jobs: Low salaries, lack of support, disruptive students and a lack of influence in decision-making.

''That certainly comports with what I've heard,'' he said.

Teachers get blamed for poor student performance and for unpopular curricula that they might not have written, he said.

Other states have responded to the teacher shortage by raising salaries and offering incentives to recruit teachers, such as moving expenses, bonuses and even help purchasing homes.

Alaska's Legislature is powerful, Kronberg said. ''One of the things they can't do is repeal the law of supply and demand.''

Legislators don't negotiated contracts, but they provide the biggest share of money for teacher salaries, Kronberg said.

Alaska's public schools have about 8,100 teachers. The Alaska Teacher Placement Center helped fill 1,065 vacancies last year.

Rural administrators say the pool of candidates showing up at the center's teachers fairs this year was markedly smaller. Many of the faces were people with teaching certificates who had washed out in other districts, said Darrell Sanborn, superintendent of Unalaska City Schools.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said there are plenty of warm bodies available to hire. He said quality of teachers has become a critical issues given the high-stakes consequences of children not learning.

''The issue of a teacher shortage, if focused on quality, is real,'' he said.

The hardest job to fill for a rural district? ''Any one you have open,'' Sanborn said. ''Now even good elementary teaches are hard to come by,'' he said.

Karen Dempster, superintendent of Yukon-Koyukuk Schools, had to fill seven of her district's 54 teaching positions for fall classes.

''What we finally did was run ads in out-of-state papers,'' Dempster said. The ads stressed the opportunity to learn a new culture hands-on in communities with beautiful Interior Alaska scenery -- Kaltag, Nulato, Koyuk, Huslia, Hughes, Alakaket, Bettles, Coldfoot, Minto, Manley or Ruby.

''We have something to sell,'' Dempster said. ''We are different.''

Norris-Tull of UA Fairbanks said the Legislature has taken steps to provide for more Alaska teachers by providing the university with more money for education faculty. A little more money would help provide more teachers, he said.

''That's still a bottleneck,'' he said.

The university is again providing a four-year program for elementary education teachers, which should help students in rural communities who cannot leave to attend college at a distance campus for traditional semesters. But one major impediment remains for rural Alaskans who want to be teachers, who are most likely to take and stay in rural teaching jobs: passing the three sections of the Praxis exam, a requirement since 1998.

''There are only four states in the United States that have passing scores higher than ours,'' he said.

Standardized tests often present problems for people who speak English as a second language. The tests also have been a problem for teachers hired from out of state, Norris-Tull said. Many move to Alaska and take jobs on the condition they pass the exam, then flunk the reading, writing or math portions, and leave.

''After one year, they're done,'' he said.

The Special Committee on Education will take testimony in Kodiak on Monday, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on Tuesday and in Anchorage on Wednesday. The committee will take testimony via teleconference from around the state from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night.



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