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Mass. Ties Teacher Loan-Payback Program to High Grades

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The state of Massachusetts wants its brightest college students to go into the classroom and teach, so much so that it is willing to help pay back their student loans--if they graduate in the top quarter of their class.

"This is a way for the state to bring more bright students into teaching," said Michael Sentance, the state secretary of education. "We have to do whatever we can," he said, to "make the compensation better so students will choose teaching instead of other professions."

While about 30 other states have loan-payback programs for teachers, Massachusetts is among the first to require eligible students to get high grades in college to qualify.

Most new teachers in Massachusetts graduate in the bottom half of their high school and college classes, said Ted Frier, the special assistant to Mr. Sentance. And they score about 40 to 50 points below the state and national averages on the Scholastic Assessment Test, he said.

"It was important to put in an incentive to attract the best students to teach," Mr. Frier said.

The legislature created the payback program as part of its 1993 Education Reform Act. But the state only recently provided funds to implement it--$150,000 in July. That initial allocation will be used to pay back some of the loans for eligible graduates who became teachers after July 1994.

'Unexpected Bonus'

"We are not going to see the effects on the decisions students will make until the next two or three years," Mr. Frier said. "It will be more like an unexpected bonus to people who have already gone into teaching."

Under the program, the state will pay back a maximum of $1,800 a year, or $7,299 over four years, for students who attended public or private colleges in the state. Students must make their regular loan payments, and will then receive a check from the state each June.

The program will give preference to students who plan to teach in low-income districts, Mr. Frier said.

Other states have similar programs. Georgia's hope Scholarship Program, for example, provides forgivable loans to students who are enrolled in an education program at a Georgia college or university or who seek an advanced degree in education.

One component of the program offers loans of up to $3,000 a year to students who want to teach in Georgia's public schools. To have their loans forgiven, students must have a 3.6 grade-point average by the end of their sophomore year and teach in Georgia public schools for four years.

Aging Staffs

Besides being an effort to attract top students to teaching, the Massachusetts program to pay off college loans is also geared toward warding off an impending teacher shortage there.

Massachusetts has the second-oldest teaching staff in the country, Mr. Frier said. The average teacher in the state is 47 years old, and state officials say many teachers are nearing retirement.

The loan-payback program, Mr. Frier said, "was not a response to a teacher shortage as much as a response to a need we know will exist in the near future."

As the number of teachers dwindles, enrollment in the public schools is increasing, state officials say. Many schools are operating near capacity.

However, John M.Conley, the director of human resources for the 63,000-student Boston public schools, said the program will have limited success in attracting and keeping talented students unless it is enhanced.

"I think the program has a lot of possibilities, but it is a little too early to tell," Mr. Conley said. "It needs to be combined with other programs to make teaching attractive. As part of a larger program, it could be very helpful."

Mr. Conley said the program should be combined with efforts to target high school students who are interested in teaching.

Minority Recruitment

Though the Massachusetts program does not specifically target minority groups, experts say such programs can help alleviate the perpetual shortages of minority teachers in many areas.

Kathy Christie, the clearinghouse coordinator for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based education-policy organization, said a goal of state loan-forgiveness programs in general is to increase the number of minority teachers.

"Part of it is aimed at minority recruitment," she said. "Everybody knows we need to get more minority teachers in K-12 education."

She believes such programs attract students to teaching.

"When people's loans are being forgiven, that's no small peanuts," she said. "Right now, we need to use every tool available to recruit teachers in areas of need like special education and bilingual education, and recruit more minority teachers."

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