Critics Doubt Teacher Plan's Effectiveness

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On paper, it looks to most people like a good plan: $1.2 billion going straight to needy school districts to hire thousands of new teachers and reduce class sizes in the crucial early grades.

Before political leaders here finish patting each others' backs, though, some districts are questioning how--and whether--they will be able to use the new funding authorized in fiscal 1999's just-finished federal budget. Many have already scrambled this year to find qualified teachers--and to build the classrooms to house them. Add to that the realization that there's no guarantee Congress will renew the program's funding in next year's budget.

Despite all the publicity and praise, President Clinton's plan likely won't mean a big influx of new teachers in most districts next year. The Department of Education estimates that 30,000 new teachers could be hired nationally beginning in the 1999-2000 academic year, a "down payment" on a proposed $12 billion, seven-year plan to hire 100,000 new teachers, acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said.

"This is the beginning; this is not a one-year proposal in our minds at all," Mr. Smith said at an Oct. 16 news conference. School leaders "can be well assured that this administration will fight very, very hard for it."

It may indeed be a hard fight.

"On the whole, House Republicans support it as long as they see the money going to local school districts," said Jay Diskey, the spokesman for the GOP members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. But, he warned, "it will be a battle for the administration next year to stake out another $1 billion. They're going to have to prove that this money made a difference."

On Sept. 18, only a month before the omnibus budget package passed, the House rejected, 215-190, an amendment by Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif., to substitute a $7.34 billion, five-year authorization of the program for a GOP-backed education block-grants bill. The plan to hire 100,000 teachers did not win a single vote from the Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee. The Senate also rejected a similar amendment earlier this year.

The original formula had too many strings attached through Title I, the massive K-12 program that targets schools in low-income areas, Mr. Diskey said.

Now, more Republicans are supportive of the deal they cut with President Clinton in recent weeks because it guarantees that all of the funding will go to districts. The states will channel the money to local districts under a formula based 80 percent on child poverty and 20 percent on enrollment. Still, some conservative Republicans were grumbling over the creation of a new federal program.

Up to 15 percent of the aid may be used for teacher professional development and up to 3 percent may go to local administration costs, but the remainder must be used for hiring. The money is scheduled to be distributed to districts starting July 1, 1999.

Mr. Diskey said that next year some members may fight to give districts more flexibility, even allowing them to use the entire amount for teacher training.

"That defeats the purpose of the legislation," Bob Chase, the president of the 2.4 million-member National Education Association, argued in an interview. "The legislation is to reduce class size."

The NEA and the 980,000-member American Federation of Teachers were strong supporters of the teacher-hiring plan, but Mr. Chase denied claims by Republicans that the unions were the main force behind the Clinton initiative.

Small Districts Doubtful

Meanwhile, even the Education Department is being cautious in promoting the program. Many smaller districts will be able to hire only one or two teachers with this year's funds, Mr. Smith said. Some may not even see any money at all.

Small, rural districts--which represent about a third of the nation's approximately 15,000 school districts--will not be able to secure enough funding to hire even one teacher, predicted Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"As a one-year authorization, it is poor education policy," he said.

Lloyd W. Snow, the superintendent of 1,500-student Sulphur, Okla., school system, said he would like to be able to hire another elementary school teacher, given that his district is adopting new strategies to focus on early-childhood development.

"The more resources we have, the more people we can put in front of those kiddos at an early age, and the better we can do," he said. But a new teacher, he estimated, would cost about $30,000--the going rate for new graduates is $24,000, plus benefits--and Mr. Snow doubts that he'll see that much money from the program in the next year.

Even if a district receives the federal aid, finding qualified teachers to hire could be another obstacle. While many well-heeled suburban districts have an abundance of strong applicants, urban and rural districts often scramble to fill their job openings.

"We have no teacher shortages--what we have is a distribution problem," argued Michael J. Petrilli, the program director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research organization headed by former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr.

That's little consolation, however, to Jerry Roy, the superintendent of the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District near Houston. The 18,000-student district still has vacancies for 10 to 12 bilingual education teachers this year, and Mr. Roy has already hired several teachers from Mexico as long-term substitutes.

"The fact that there's more money doesn't mean there are teachers," he said. "These shortages are real--and I believe we're just beginning to see the impact."

But the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District would be grateful for its portion of the $97 million the Education Department estimates Texas will receive to hire 2,500 teachers. "Any plan that would assist us in attracting and retaining teachers would be of great benefit," said spokesman Ronnie Veselka.

Suburban Shift?

Nearly every district, regardless of location, has a difficult time finding special education teachers, according to Recruiting New Teachers Inc. Other hard-to-fill jobs in many regions include specialties such as bilingual education, mathematics, and science teaching, according to the research group in Belmont, Mass. The organization also promotes recruitment of high-quality teachers.

Mr. Roy believes he can still hire several general elementary school teachers if he gets federal funding. If the federal dollars evaporate after a year, he said the Goose Creek district is large enough that he could probably make reassignments to avoid layoffs.

But if sought-after jobs open up for teachers in suburban areas, Mr. Petrilli warned, the plan could actually further deplete the supply of experienced teachers in rural and inner-city areas.

Officials in Clark County, Nev., are already worried about that. The 203,000-student district--one of the fastest-growing in the nation--recruits from 44 states, but mainly Pennsylvania, where there is a large supply of recent graduates, said George Ann Rice, the assistant superintendent for human resources. This year alone, 1,700 new hires joined the 12,000-teacher force in the county, which includes Las Vegas.

But if new jobs open up in Pennsylvania and other areas, Clark County may lose out. "With the competition up, it will make it very hard for us, even though we're grateful to have the extra funding," Ms. Rice said.

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 1, 28

Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as Critics Doubt Teacher Plan's Effectiveness
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