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Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as States Strive To Lure Retired Teachers

States Strive To Lure Retired Teachers

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Peggy S. Linton retired this past June after three decades in South Carolina's classrooms, only to realize she would desperately miss her job teaching elementary school pupils to speak Spanish. So this fall, the 52-year-old teacher opted to take advantage of a new state law that allows retired educators in "critical-need areas" to return to the workforce at full salary while continuing to collect their entire pension payments. She is now teaching Spanish three days a week at the Columbia elementary school where she worked before her retirement. Her annual pay will be about $42,000, including her pension.

"I picked the grade level I want to teach, the days I want," Ms. Linton said. "I am making a little more than what I was making last year teaching full time."

South Carolina's law, aimed at easing a serious teacher shortage around the state, is one of a growing number of similar measures designed to lure retirees back to class at a time when good help is hard to find.

Lawmakers in Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas enacted such laws during the past school year, creating new policies or tweaking those from earlier in the decade that kept returning retirees' salaries low.

Officials in California, one of the first states to try such a program in 1996, expanded the state's program this year to affect more retirees.

Experience Valued

Supporters of such laws say retirees represent an untapped, qualified pool of labor that has long been overlooked. Moreover, they say, retirees provide invaluable experience to schools filled with rookie teachers in need of mentors.

But not all school districts may be ready to embrace retirees. While such employees represent a reasonable alternative when districts need to replace one or two teachers, those faced with hiring dozens or hundreds of educators may not be able to afford their salaries.

Hiring retirees "is a way to tide school systems over," Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a recent interview.

Still, she warned that relying on retirees was not the solution. "The real challenge is to make sure enough teachers are in the pipeline who are properly educated and certified," Ms. Feldman said.

That challenge is formidable. Over the next eight to 10 years, it is widely projected that more than 2 million teachers will have to be replaced nationwide. And currently, 20 percent to 25 percent of teachers are not certified in the fields in which they are teaching.

Several variables have caused this crunch. The influx of baby boomers who entered the profession 30 years ago are retiring while fewer and fewer young people enter the profession. Those that do become teachers are turned off after a few years on the job by mediocre pay and difficulties of the classroom management. ("States' Uneven Teacher Supply Complicates Staffing of Schools," March 10, 1999.)

Reforms Fuel Demand

To complicate matters, many states have lowered class sizes while raising high school graduation requirements and other standards. These are developments that typically increase the number of educators schools need and make the profession more demanding.

At the same time, enrollment is swelling in schools throughout the nation.

The promise of more generous paychecks seems to be working in some states to draw veteran teachers back to the classroom.

While no state or district officials appear to be keeping close track of the number of returning retirees, South Carolina reports a frenzy of phone calls following the implementation of its new law in July.

"We got 500 inquiries in one month," said Janice Poda, the director of the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment at Winthrop University in Rock Hill and the project director of the governor's commission on teacher quality.

A 1962 state law authorized all South Carolina state employees, including teachers, to return to work after retirement, but capped salaries at a fraction of pre-retirement pay. In 1998, for example, the limit was $15,500. Only a handful of teachers took advantage of that opportunity, Ms. Poda said.

Many who did return stopped working when they earned the maximum salary. That resulted in chaos when they left their classes at midyear, Ms. Poda said.

Under the new law, retirees who teach in districts or curricular fields deemed critical-need areas can earn full-time salaries as well as collect their pensions. Retirees who teach in other subject areas or districts can earn up to $25,000 a year while drawing 55 percent of their pension payments.

Response Raises Hopes

The recent response gives hope to South Carolina school administrators faced with the task of hiring an average of 5,000 teachers statewide each year. This fall, the state's schools started the academic year with more than 350 vacancies, and administrators "have reached their limit in terms of what they can do to bring in teachers," Ms. Poda said.

Retirees "are knowledgeable of the logistics and procedure of getting things done," she added. "They know how to interpret test scores."

Money has also attracted retired educators in California, where the legislature recently expanded a 1996 law aimed at addressing the staffing needs associated with a statewide campaign to lower class sizes in the early grades. Under the new provision, retirees can earn their full salaries and pensions if they return to work in schools in which class-size-reduction initiatives have been enacted. Retired educators who return to other schools can draw pensions but must subtract that money from their salaries.

A Deal With Appeal

Cash "has made it attractive," said Steve Blazak, a spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association. "In fact, it is such a good deal that we had teachers who retired the previous year before the law went into effect besiege us. They were very upset because they didn't get the same deal."

Such interest from qualified applicants is a boon to the Los Angeles district, where 20 percent of the 35,000 teachers have emergency credentials and half of new teachers leave after only five years on the job, Mr. Blazak said.

Still, Mr. Blazak wonders how many retirees will actually give up their free time to return to what many see as unappealing jobs.

"We've made it attractive to retire; the conditions [in schools] are so bad," Mr. Blazak said. California "is phasing out social promotion, the public is screaming for accountability, and there is an end to bilingual education. There is a lot of pressure--it isn't fun."

Costs Can Be Too High

For poor districts struggling to buy books and other necessities, retirees may prove altogether too expensive to hire.

So far, districts in Texas aren't making much use of a new law that allows retired teachers who specialize in mathematics, science, or technology to return to their full salaries and still draw their pensions, said Debbie Graves Radcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

"If districts can find a brand-new teacher or a teacher with a year or two of experience versus a 30-year veteran, they can hire for significantly less pay," Ms. Radcliffe said.

Yet William L. Campbell, a formerly retired middle school technology instructor in Anne Arundel County, Md., argues that retirees are a bargain. Not only does he have a master's degree in education, but he also served as a chairman of his department and has taught some 15,000 students during his career.

"I've had one detention and 12 [student-discipline] referrals in 32 years of teaching," said Mr. Campbell, 59, who is back teaching at Central and Magothy middle schools this school year. "I have some of the highest grades in the county. I love teaching and I love kids."

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Pages 1,22-23

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