Recruitment & Retention

More Teachers Lured to Stay in Classrooms

By Linda Jacobson — March 03, 2006 7 min read

It sounds like a simple solution to a growing problem: Address teacher shortages by adopting policies that encourage veterans to stay in the classroom while attracting retirees back to the job.

While many states and districts are doing just that, they are also finding that their policies can have unintended consequences—such as raising questions about fairness, enticing teachers to retire early, and putting new strains on the retirement system.

“It’s one of those things in which everyone jumps on the bandwagon,” said Michelle Exstrom, a senior policy specialist at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “Everyone’s hoping that one thing will make the difference.”

Experience Matters

The bandwagon effect is understandable. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is forcing states to meet new requirements for putting “highly qualified” teachers in schools just as many are projecting waves of retirees. Who better to turn to than those who have already put in their 30 or more years of service?

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, for example, has proposed allowing retired teachers to be hired for “difficult-to-fill classroom positions” for a two-year period without losing retirement benefits.

Psychology teacher Santhe Neidner gives an exam to her class at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, as Patrick Kimmerle works on the test. Though she retired after 35 years as a high school teacher, she returned to the classroom by signing up with an Arizona company that contracts with school districts to provide teachers.

Such arrangements are also helpful to retired educators, many of whom can’t support themselves on their pension checks alone. And the plans are responding to the need for teachers with expertise in shortage-prone areas, such as mathematics, science, and special education.

“I happen to think that experience does make a difference,” said Harold Kurle, a 63-year-old science and special education teacher at Hazen High School in Renton, Wash., outside Seattle, who kept teaching after his retirement in 2001 because he needed the money and because state policy made it favorable for him to do so. “And if there was no need to rehire, we wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Kurle is far from alone.

After 35 years as a high school teacher and guidance counselor in the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Santhe Niedner wasn’t ready to stop working. Immediately after retiring, she signed up with an Arizona company that contracts with districts to keep retired employees in their jobs, or place them in new ones.

Ms. Niedner, who teaches psychology at Paradise Valley’s Pinnacle High School, receives her pension and a regular paycheck—without any penalties.

“As long as I enjoy it, I want to have the opportunity,” she said. “I have to say this is the first time I’m even close to being paid what I’m worth.”

Ms. Niedner’s district also wins by keeping a valuable employee while no longer having to set aside money for her benefits. Whatever benefits she gets now, come from the company that contracts with the district.

“We can keep our seasoned teachers,” said Karen Gasket, the assistant superintendent for human resources in the 34,000-student district.

Laws Vary

But some policymakers complain that those programs “entice teachers to retire early,” so they can receive their pensions and still earn a paycheck, Ms. Exstrom said.

To discourage such “double dipping,” most states require retirees to stay out of work for a month to a full year before returning.

State laws, though, vary on whether retirees can be re-employed, how long they can work, and how much they can be paid before they are penalized.

A 2004 study conducted by the National Education Association found that all 50 states allow teachers to return to work on at least a part-time basis without losing their pension benefits after they’ve retired.

Thirty-four states let teachers return to work full time. Often, however, districts must meet certain conditions—such as proving that a teacher shortage exists.

Or, in Colorado, only districts with fewer than 4,000 students are eligible to hire retired teachers. Districts also must first post the teaching position for at least a month and advertise it in local newspapers or through teacher education institutions.

Other states, the NEA study showed, set limits on the number of retired teachers a district can employ. In Georgia, for instance, re-employed teachers must not exceed 1 percent of the total full-time teaching staff in a district.

Pension Problems

While some officials worry that rehiring laws will foster an early exodus of experienced teachers, others say some districts use the strategy as a way to lure teachers at the top of the salary schedule into early retirement so that the districts can save money.

In some states, retirees returning to teaching after the waiting period are paid significantly less because they are also drawing a pension. But in others—especially where salaries were set by collective bargaining—teachers might earn the same, or close to the same amount, as they earned before they retired.

Santhe Niedner, the head counselor and psychology teacher at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, meets with fellow counselors as they organize state graduation tests on March 1.

Such issues can generate animosity between younger teachers and those who have retired and then returned.

“Nonretired teachers could perceive re-employed, retired teachers as having an unfair economic advantage because the latter group may be willing to accept a lower wage,” the NEA study said, adding that having retired teachers on staff could also “slow promotion opportunities for the nonretired group.”

But the biggest problem, some observers say, is the potential effect that the programs will have on the pension systems, which already are facing strains from growing obligations. (“States Facing Fiscal Strain of Pensions,” May 18, 2005.)

“The problem that this is going to create is that districts are filling slots with people who are not paying into the retirement fund,” said Jan Amator, a deputy associate superintendent with the Arizona Department of Education.

Sharon Mahoe, the director of the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, counters that retired teachers who return to work often aren’t accumulating pension benefits anymore.

Another issue, Ms. Amator pointed out, is that once teachers retire, they lose their tenure rights. “Basically, [a district] could say goodbye to you tomorrow,” she said.

Bill McClelland, a co-founder of smartschoolsplus Inc.—the Tempe, Ariz., business that hired Ms. Niedner—agreed that some downsides do exist for retired teachers who go back to work: They lose job security, may not be able to work in the school they prefer, and are employed based on the needs of the district.

But it’s a risk that he has found many are willing to take because even their pension payments are often not enough to live on.

In 2002, Mr. McClelland and his wife Sandee McClelland—both career educators—founded the company to match retired teachers who weren’t ready to stop teaching with the districts that needed them.

Teachers in Arizona are able to avoid the yearlong waiting period before returning to work full time because they are working for smartschoolsplus instead of the district. They can also begin receiving their pensions.

“This is a way of not losing these highly qualified people, and especially not losing them to Wal-Mart,” said Mr. McClelland, noting that districts can meet their hiring needs and save money by not having to pay benefits.

The company, which is one of several doing such work, is currently contracting to provide about 250 teachers, administrators, and classified employees to 20 Arizona districts.

Larger Effort Needed

Florida—home to many retirees—has found a way to retain veteran teachers longer without having to rehire them.

The state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, which began in 1998, originally allowed teachers reaching retirement age to stay on the job another five years. At the same time, their benefits begin to accumulate, with interest, which they can receive as a lump sum after the five-year period.

Three years ago, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law extending that period to eight years.

But many experts still say that filling positions with retired teachers—or hanging on to veterans longer—is a short-term fix to teacher-shortage problems.

Rehiring retired teachers is a more sensible and successful strategy, Ms. Exstrom said, “if it’s a piece of a larger effort” to improve the workforce.

For example, in Hawaii, Gov. Lingle’s proposal to rehire retired teachers is part of an overall package. The Republican is also recommending paying bonuses to teachers with certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who work in underperforming schools, and setting up an emergency-certified-teacher program.

Ms. Mahoe of the Hawaii teacher-standards board said that retired teachers are especially helpful as mentors to newer teachers, but not always in regular classroom positions.

“It seems most retired teachers don’t want to teach full time,” she said. “Makes sense—that’s why they retire.”

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