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Free Tuition for Children of Veteran Texas Teachers Proposed

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Free college tuition for the children of career educators could be an effective way of curtailing the exodus of experienced teachers from Texas' public schools.

John Sharp, the state comptroller, proposed that approach in a letter late last month to Gov. George W. Bush and legislative leaders. It is one of several recommendations included in the comptroller's upcoming Texas Performance Review, a report on government efficiency.

School performance reviews show that "thousands upon thousands" of Texas teachers are leaving the classroom after only a few years, Mr. Sharp said in his Nov. 25 letter.

"We've got to find a way to retain them," Mr. Sharp, a Democrat, said. "This proposal offers the biggest bang for the buck of any we considered ... a solid, cost-effective way to hold on to valuable employees."

A recent study by the Texas Education Agency found that about half the teachers in the state leave their jobs by their fifth year of employment.

Under the comptroller's plan, teachers with at least 10 years of classroom experience would receive free tuition for their children at any Texas public college. Teachers with at least 15 years' service would also have their children's required fees paid by the state. National and state teachers' union officials did not know of another state that had passed a similar plan.

"This is not a new concept for Texas," Mr. Sharp said. "Many of the state's colleges and universities already offer free or discounted tuition to their employees and their employees' families. They've found it to be a powerful incentive to their workers."

Teachers Endorse Plan

While acknowledging that the proposal has a long road ahead of it, state and union leaders gave it a favorable nod.

Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Gov. Bush, called the plan "an interesting idea" and said that the Republican governor "looks forward to hearing the debate and watching as legislative debate unfolds."

Teacher organizations were quick to endorse the plan, agreeing that it would help keep the nearly 250,000 public school teachers in the state from leaving the profession. But union leaders warned that free tuition was not an alternative to pay increases.

"The plan is entirely appropriate, particularly if you look at the attrition rate of Texas teachers," said Richard Kouri, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents 90,000 teachers.

John Cole, the president of the 26,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers, called the proposal a "meaningful gesture."

"There are many reasons for the high attrition rate among Texas teachers, and financial concerns are probably at the top of the list," Mr. Cole said. "The college-tuition plan will help alleviate at least one financial burden for many teachers."

Mr. Sharp recommended that the legislature approve the incentive plan and put it into effect in 1998. He estimates that tuition and other costs would total $20.3 million over every two-year period, a price that could be offset by the $1 billion in savings suggested by his entire Texas Performance Review package, expected to be introduced in the next few weeks.

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