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In teacher shortage, advocates stress better benefits

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama’s salaries and benefits for K-12 teachers are on par with what surrounding states offer and better in some instances, including out-of-pocket health care expenses, according to a recent report to lawmakers.

But educators and some lawmakers say the state must do better, particularly with retirement packages, to attract a shrinking pool of young teachers.

“We absolutely have a shortage of teachers, but I don’t think you can point a bright light to any one of these things as being the reason for that,” Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency, told a panel of lawmakers earlier this month during a presentation on Alabama’s pay and health and retirement benefits for educators. 

Alabama pays starting teachers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees more than neighboring states, but over time every state except Tennessee pays more than Alabama. In 2019-2020 the top salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Alabama was $52,609. In Florida, it was $60,401.

“The area of compensation we need to improve are the middle years,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. This year, Orr, the Senate education budget committee chairman, pushed through an increase in step raises that are built into educators’ salary structures.

“That’s where I intended to keep pushing, (step raises for) those middle years,” Orr told ADN. “That will have an impact regardless of whether the Legislature gives an across the board pay raise in good economic times.”

Step raises could help retain teachers. In the meantime, higher salaries translate to increased retirement benefits, Orr said. He’s previously said teachers will likely get a raise in the 2023 fiscal year.

Fulford said retirement benefits also are on par with other states, though they’re hard to compare because like Alabama, some states have multiple tiers. 

Under the state’s Tier II, which went into effect in 2013 to save the state money, new teachers can’t collect retirement until age 62. Tier I allowed retirement after 25 years, letting many teachers leave the classroom around age 50.

In Florida, teachers can retire after 33 years. In Georgia, retirement after 30 years is an option, as is 25 years with a lesser benefit. Mississippi also offers a 30-year option. In Tennessee, the “Rule of 90” allows for retirement when a teachers’ age plus years of service equals 90. That could allow a teacher who starts in their early 20s to retire in their mid-50s.

Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, told Alabama Daily News he will try again in the 2022 session to pass a bill allowing for retirement after 30 years for Tier II.

“In my mind, there are just certain professions such as law enforcement, military and education that due to the unique demands and expectations, the stresses of their work, should be provided a 25- or 30-year service retirement,” Baker said.

Changing Tier II to a 30-year retirement option without increasing teachers’ contributions would increase the employer costs by about $12.7 million per year starting in 2024, according to the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

Orr said the 30-year option could be considered again next year. It was struck from Baker’s legislation this year.

“We’ll have to see if that makes sense going forward and the impact on RSA and everyone else if we made that change.” 

Under Tier II, if a teacher earning $52,000 toward the end of their career could retire after 30 years, their retirement benefit would be $2,145 per month for the rest of his or her life. (A Tier I teacher in the same scenario can get $2,616).

If they retired in their early 50s, the state and its taxpayers are funding that retirement longer than the teacher served, Orr noted.

“You certainly don’t get that deal in the private sector,” Orr said.

Under Tier II, the employer contribution is less than Tier I, 11.22% compared to 12.36%. Florida and Tennessee’s employer contributions are lower, Mississippi and Georgia’s are higher at 17.4% and 19.06%, respectively.

Tier II’s benefit factor is also less than Tier I’s, 1.65% versus 2.0125%.

Lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey in the spring tweaked Tier II to allow newer teachers to rollover each year their sick leave and get paid for unused days when they retire. Previously, Tier II teachers lost unused days each year.

The law also increases teachers’ contributions to their retirement from 6% to 6.2%. Tier I’s employee contribution is 7.5%.

Amy Marlowe, executive director of the Alabama Education Association, said schools’ teacher pipeline was drying up before COVID-19, but the pandemic put additional demands and stress on teachers, worsening the shortage.

“With all those factors in play, AEA absolutely believes salaries and retirement benefits contribute to the teacher shortage,” Marlowe said. “To compete with those states in Fulford’s presentation, we can’t just be average or slightly better. To attract teachers to Alabama, we must be much better, higher, and offer more beyond what other states offer.”

Beg and steal

Alabama’s public colleges and universities graduated 1,817 education majors in 2020, a 25% drop since 2013, according to information given to ADN by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. There’s been a comparable drop in the output of educators with master’s degrees. And that doesn’t mean those graduates actually went into Alabama classrooms.

Across the state, school principals are puzzling together class schedules around vacant teaching positions.

At Winston County High School, Principal Jeffery Cole has recently begged and, in one case, stolen from another system to put qualified teachers in front of his about 250 students.

About a year ago, a math teacher with more than 30 years of experience said that between COVID-19 concerns and a new learning platform educators were required to learn, she was done.

“I ended up begging a former math teacher to come finish out the year with me, then I spent the summer looking for a new math teacher,” Cole said. 

In early February, a beloved and talented science teacher died of COVID-19.

“It’s almost impossible to hire in the middle of the year,” Cole said. He was able to call on a friend who is a retired science teacher to come in on short notice and teach the rest of the year.

In the meantime, Cole said he only got a few applicants for either job.

In September, one of the school’s history teachers took an administration job. He had two applicants, but neither worked out.

“I stole someone from Huntsville,” Cole said. “They’d been here before and I called and begged and they came back because they have family in the area.”

Cole and his wife, Dianna Cole, who retired after 30 years in the classroom, are Winston County natives, examples of home grown educators.

Two counties to the south, Cole’s daughter is a 12th-grade counselor in Tuscaloosa.

Candace Young graduated with an education degree from the University of Alabama in 2014 and was among the first groups of teachers to enter the profession under Tier II.

“I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a teacher,” Young told ADN recently. She said before she graduated, she was aware of the change in benefits between what her parents earned and what she’ll receive. 

“I definitely knew it was going to be different,” Young said. “But I also kind of felt like there wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t going to change my mind about what I wanted to do because of that.”

At Carbon Hill Elementary and Junior High in Walker County, Principal Jami Rainey needs more teachers. He’s had three open positions for about a month, two special education and math.

“I’ve had zero applicants,” Rainey said.

“… I need education to be more enticing for people to go into.”

Cole and Rainey are competing against other states and local systems for that limited pool of educators. They’re also up against the other professions for people skilled in maths and sciences.

“I need teachers who want to be here, instead of thinking about going somewhere else,” Rainey said. “I need teachers to feel appreciated and want to stick around, because right now, they’re looking at other options.”

Because he can’t find enough qualified teachers, in kindergarten Rainey’s hired auxiliary teachers — they don’t have four-year degrees, but some are working on it — to help certified teachers and have another adult in the room.

He uses substitute teachers, but there’s a shortage of them too.

Like other administrators, he regularly puzzles together schedules with the teachers he has, putting them in more classes for less instructional time.

Orr was in the crowd recently when Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas said educators need more respect.

“We’ve got parents telling kids not to go into education,” Douglas said at a community address. “They’re not getting paid enough, the workload is too hectic and they’re not being respected.”

Orr said his takeaway from Douglas was that the quality of education careers has declined in the last 20 years, and was made worse by COVID.

“I think compensation plays a role, but it’s not the end-all-be-all,” Orr said. Relieving teachers of some of the paperwork and bureaucracy they have to handle could be an improvement, he said.

Young was 22 when she took her first teaching job eight years ago with four decades between her and retirement.

“I love counseling and it’s something I can see myself doing for a long time,” Young said about her current job. “But that’s also looking at 32 more years. I’m not even 32 years old yet. So I cannot really imagine what all is going to happen in my life in the next 32 years, to know whether that’s going to be a feasible option for me to stay in this profession for that long right now…

“We’re talking about an amount of time that I haven’t even lived yet.”

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