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Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as The Golden Years

The Golden Years

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Peggy Linton's retirement was shorter than some vacations. After three decades in South Carolina's classrooms, the 52-year-old Spanish teacher called it quits in June, only to have a change of heart. Worried that she would miss her kids and her teaching, Linton rejoined her Columbia elementary school this fall, working three days a week.

In previous years, Linton might have had to take a pay cut to get back into the classroom. Instead, she was richly rewarded. Thanks to a new state law, she collects her full pension as well as her part-time pay-a total yearly income of $42,000. "I am making a little more than what I was making last year teaching full time," Linton says.

Such sweet deals are a sign of the times in states and districts feeling the squeeze of the nation's teacher shortage. With good help hard to find, policymakers in South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and other states are passing juicy incentives to lure retirees back to school. Supporters of the new laws say such teachers are a qualified pool of labor that has long been overlooked. Their years of experience will pay big dividends in schools with rookie teachers in need of mentors, they argue.

But hiring longtime teachers accustomed to making top dollar may not be an affordable option for districts with lots of vacancies to fill. Luring back retirees is only a stopgap measure, says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "The real challenge is to make sure enough teachers are in the pipeline who are properly educated and certified."

Over the next eight to 10 years, the nation's schools will have to hire more than 2 million teachers. Experts say this crunch has many causes: the graying of today's teaching corps; the high rates of attrition among young teachers; the booming student enrollment; and the increased popularity of class-size reduction mandates, among them.

South Carolina administrators face the task of hiring an average of 5,000 teachers state wide each year. To help, lawmakers recently rewrote a 1968 law that limited the salary that state employees-including teachers-could earn if they returned to work for the government. In 1998, that cap was $15,500.

Under the new law, retirees who teach in districts or curricular fields deemed "critical-need areas" can earn full salaries and collect their full 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.

South Carolina officials report a frenzy of interest in the new salary provision following the implementation of the law in July. "We got 500 inquiries in one month," says Janice Poda, director of the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment at Winthrop University in Rock Hill and project director of the governor's commission on teacher quality.

Money also seems to be luring retired educators back to schools in California. Legislators there recently expanded a 1996 program that tackled school staffing shortfalls stemming from a statewide mandate to reduce class size in the early grades. Under the new law, retirees can earn full salaries and pensions if they return to work in schools with class-size-reduction plans. Retired educators who return to other schools can draw pensions but must subtract that money from their salaries.

The cash incentives have made a return to teaching more attractive, says 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."

Texas officials tell a different story. So far, districts in the Lone Star State aren't making much use of a new law that allows retired teachers who specialize in mathematics, science, or technology to return to full salaries and still draw their pensions, says 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," Radcliffe says, "they can hire for significantly less pay."

Districts that don't use new state incentives to sign up retirees are missing a bargain, argues William Campbell, a formerly retired middle school technology instructor in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Campbell, who has a master's degree in education, taught some 15,000 students during his career and served as chairman of his department. "I've had one detention and 12 [student-discipline] referrals in 32 years of teaching," says Campbell, 59, who is back teaching at Central and Magothy middle schools this year. "I have some of the highest grades in the county. I love teaching, and I love kids."

--Julie Blair

Vol. 11, Issue 2, Pages 16-17

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