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Connecticut's Teacher Surplus Hurts Students Who Need To Repay Loans

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By Debra Viadero

When Susan Katz was a college sophomore majoring in education, Connecticut's loan-forgiveness program for prospective teachers seemed like a golden opportunity.

Under the terms of the program, the state would provide loans for her tuition and she would pay them back by teaching in a Connecticut school. State officials at the time were predicting dire teacher shortages and, to Ms. Katz, there seemed to be no question she could get a job in the field.

Today, however, after five years and more than 100 fruitless attempts to find a job in 50 different school districts across the state, Ms. Katz's is understandably less enthusiastic about the program.

In November, despite her best efforts to land a teaching job, the young woman must keep her part of her bargain with the state and begin paying back her loan at the rate of $340 a month. And that expense, she said, is hardly affordable on the wages she earns working as a waitress and a bank teller.

"If I had had any idea this would happen when I accepted the loan, I probably would have reconsidered," she said.

Like a number of other young people in the state, Ms. Katz is discovering she has become the inadvertent casualty of a combination of state education reforms that, in essence, worked too well.

Owing to the state's efforts to increase teacher salaries and make the profession more attractive, the teacher shortages predicted by state education officials in the early 1980's never materialized. Now, according to state Commissioner of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi, Connecticut has a surplus of qualified teaching candidates in virtually every specialty area.

Students such as Ms. Katz, unable to find teaching jobs in a suddenly tight job market, are now faced with the uncomfortable prospect of having to pay back money they thought they had gotten for free.

"No one could have predicted this would happen," Mr. Tirozzi said. "But I'd rather be guilty of planning for the future and really making an effort to ensure that our classrooms would be staffed with high-quality teachers."

Connecticut is one of nearly 40 states with some form of loan-incentive program for prospective teachers. Efforts to extend and expand such programs are under way in several states. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

Mistaken Projections

The plight of Connecticut graduates such as Ms. Katz has come to light in recent months as the legislature there has debated a bill to ease some of the terms of its loan-forgiveness programs.

More than 500 students like Ms. Katz have obligations under one of two such programs established by the state in 1983 and 1984 in an effort to avoid looming teacher shortages.

One program, known as the Teacher Incentive Loan program, was designed to attract teachers in the subject areas where impending shortages were thought to be greatest, such as mathematics, science, industrial arts, and special education. It forgave loans at the rate of 20 percent a year for each year the borrower taught in one of those specialty areas.

The other, called Education Loans to Encourage Excellence in Teaching, was intended to draw "the best and the brightest" students to the field. It provided academically talented freshmen like Ms. Katz with up to $20,000 in loans over four years, which could gradually be forgiven as borrowers taught in public or private schools.

"We had a booming economy at the time, and all of our best and brightest were heading off to science and industry," explained Cathy McManus, a spokesman for the state education department.

Because of the current glut of teaching candidates, neither program has been funded over the last three years.

Less than three years after launching its loan-forgiveness programs, the legislature stepped up efforts to bolster the state's teaching force by passing the Educational Excellence Act. The measure provided $300 million in grants over three years to help school districts increase teacher salaries.

By 1989, as a result, the average teacher salary in the state had increased from $27,035 in 1985-86 to $38,140. And Connecticut teachers, once ranked 13th nationally in average teacher salaries, are now the second most highly paid teachers in the country, according to state education officials.

That reform and a number of other smaller measures helped draw teachers from other states and other professions to Connecticut's public schools. In addition, the large number of teachers who were expected to retire decided instead to keep working.

"This is what disturbs me," Ms. Katz said. "One year they're giving us all this money, and the next year they turn around and make it impossible for us to get a job."

Many of the 500-plus borrowers under the two loan-forgiveness programs are still in college. Of those who have graduated, more than 200 have landed teaching jobs, state officials said.. The rest now face the prospect of having to pay back the loans.

According to John Siegrist, director of financial-aid services for the state department of higher education, two teachers with loanshave been laid off. A dozen other borrowers have been given one-year waivers on their obligations because of financial hardships, and 24 more are in a one-year grace period that followsgraduation. Another 75, like Ms. Katz, face payments of up to $440 a month beginning this fall.

"The vast majority of these people wanted to be teachers and needed funds," said Thomas Anderes, assistant commissioner of financial affairs for the state higher-education department. "I think most of them went into this with the idea they wouldn't have to make any payments because they would be able to get a job in teaching."

In an effort to ease the financial burdens of some of those graduates, state Senator Kevin Sullivan, the chairman of the legislature's joint education committee, is sponsoring a bill that would extend the repayment terms for both loan programs by two years.

Solving the Problem

In addition, the bill would extend forgiveness under the Teacher Incentive Loan program to special-education teachers in private programs that contract with publicschools. Because they do not work for public schools, these teachers have not benefited from the forgiveness program.

The bill was passed by the joint education committee last month, and is expected to win the approval of the legislature when it comes to the floor.

The proposed changes, however, fall far short of what higher-education officials--and borrowers--had advocated. Higher-education officials had asked lawmakers to extend the payback period to 10 years, forgive loans for borrowers teaching in community colleges or private preschools, and authorize the commissioner of higher education to forgive the obligations of those whohave made a genuine effort to find a teaching job.

Mr. Sullivan, however, pointed out that, with interest rates ranging from 7 to 11 percent, the loans were competitive with, or even less expensive than, education loans from private lenders.

"Essentially, this was a subsidized-loan program," said Mr. Sullivan. "And the feeling of the committee was that if people had the capacity to repay, it was not unfair to ask them to do so."

Mr. Sullivan also said the relatively low interest rates may have prompted some students who had no intention of becoming teachers to take out the loans.

Trying Harder

For his part, Commissioner Tirozzi is unconvinced that the graduates facing repayment have looked for jobs in the inner-city school districts where he says they are most likely to find them. Despite the teacher surplus, more than 100 new teachers were hired in the state last year. Mr. Tirozzi said most of those jobs were in the state's three largest cities--Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven.

State officials are also predicting that job prospects for many of the graduates will improve in the next two to three years as older teachers retire. Forty percent of Connecticut teachers are expected to retire over the next decade, according to Mr. Tirozzi.

If school districts begin to provide some early-retirement incentives, the state chief said, as much as half of the teaching force may be leaving.

"When I look at the greater good for the state," Mr. Tirozzi concluded, "I really have to say I think all of this is a very positive outcome."

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