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Teacher recruitment, retirement will be legislative issue in 2020

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama education groups in 2020 will again push for the creation of better retirement benefits, blaming the current pension plan for at least part of the state’s teacher shortage.

But some State House leaders say a teacher recruitment fix should be more narrowly tailored than was a proposal that died in the 2019 legislative session. Increased pay, including a possible raise in 2021, is a better way to attract new educators, one lawmaker said.

At a Alabama State Board of Education meeting Thursday, members of the teacher shortage task force rattled off concerning statistics:

Since 2010, there’s been a 40% decrease in students entering teacher education programs;

Eight percent of teachers leave the profession each year, only about one-third of those departures are due to retirement;

Thirty percent of Alabama classrooms are taught by “out of field” teachers with no background in the subject they’re teaching.

“To me, the biggest threat to public education is the teacher shortage crisis we have,” task force chairman and Roanoke City Schools Superintendent Chuck Marcum told the board.

The task force will make official recommendations later this year, but better retirement benefits will be high on the list of ways to try to get more people in the teaching profession. 

That will take legislative approval. Citing the way this year’s legislation died, board member Cynthia McCarty, R-Anniston, recommended that a new proposal be “as specific as possible” about who it targets. 

Classroom teachers only

This spring, the House approved a bill to offer a “Tier III” plan that was more generous than what education employees, including support staff and administrators, have been offered since lawmakers in 2013 scaled-back retirees’ benefits with a “Tier II” plan. The Tier II requires them to be 62 years old before they collect benefits, rather than being able to retire at any age after 25 years of employment. 

The Tier III would be available not just to teachers, but anyone who’s employer participates in the Teachers’ Retirement System.

The bill passed the House but was amended in the Senate to apply only to K-12 certificated teachers, not any other school staff.

The amended bill was sent back to the House, where it died on the last day of the session.

On Thursday, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the bill’s original supporters didn’t like it after it was focused only on classroom teachers.

“That makes me question what the objective of the legislation truly was,” Marsh said. If the problem is a teacher shortage, focus on helping teachers, he said.

Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said he’ll sponsor the bill again next year. He has meetings planned next week in Montgomery.

 “Bottomline, the teacher shortage is real and this bill is intended to incentivize the people already in our teacher prep programs to stay in state,” Baker said Thursday. He said his goal is for the bill to apply to all Teacher Retirement System members, but he’s “open to changes to move it forward.”

Marsh said a teacher-specific bill is probably the only way the Senate would in 2020 support the creation of a Tier III.

“I think there will be a lot of suspicion about this bill,” he said.

The Retirement Systems of Alabama is concerned about limiting the proposed Tier III to only K-12 active classroom teachers, Neah Scott, legislative counsel for RSA, said Thursday.

“Currently, all public education employees in K-12, postsecondary, and the universities receive the same retirement benefits,” Scott said. “Limiting Tier III to only K12 active classroom teachers would be almost impossible to administer. Furthermore, while this could fix a specific problem, it could create more problems within the system and for employers.”

Marsh said he doesn’t buy that it can’t be done.

“(RSA has) got a pretty sophisticated system over there,” Marsh said. “They can determine who a classroom teacher is and who isn’t.”

This year’s proposal would have increased retirees’ benefits and would increase the total employer contributions by an estimated $16.7 million for fiscal year 2020 with approximately $9.8 million being paid from the education budget.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is chair of the Senate education budget committee. Like Marsh, he said that if teachers are the shortage, teachers should be the focus of the fix.

Orr also said he’d rather see people paid more on the front end.

“I’m a firm believer that compensation and paying people more through their wages is the better way to attract quality candidates,” Orr told Alabama Daily News on Thursday.

This year, a 2.5% raise went into effect for educators. And  lawmakers approved a 4% raise for educators in 2020.

“The projections for 2021, today, are looking like we’ll be able to give a pay raise of some level to teachers,” Orr said.

Meanwhile, if the shortage is the worst in certain subject and grade levels, incentivize those positions with bonuses or extra pay, Orr said.

McCarty, whose district includes Morgan County, is a professor at Jacksonville State University, one of the state’s largest producers of teachers. This year, she said, JSU didn’t graduate any high school chemistry teachers and only had a handful of secondary math education graduates.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is the chairwoman of the House education policy committee and is on the education budget committee. She voted for Baker’s bill this year.

“The point is that we appreciate our teachers and we want to get the best option on the table for them and I thought the Tier III was getting closer to the best option we could afford.” 

Lawmakers this spring did approve one of the task force’s recommendations to allow schools to keep non-certified teachers — people with a bachelor’s degree but no education training or experience — for up to four years instead of the previous one year.

Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools and teacher shortage task force member, said education needs to be incentivized like industry.

“If we continue to bring companies to this state and we don’t have teachers to teach their children, they’re not going to come to this state,” Wilson, a former Hartselle City Schools Superintendent, said.

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