Push to Boost Md. Teachers Fades
By Amy Argetsinger
For a while this year, it seemed that the most popular citizen in Maryland was the public school teacher.
With schools statewide bracing for a predicted shortage of classroom instructors, lawmakers returned to Annapolis in January determined to lavish attention on the profession, offering more than a dozen bills designed to lure more qualified teachers and to keep them happier in the classroom.
But with three weeks remaining in the legislative session, the effort seems to be fizzling.
The two biggest initiatives aimed at recruiting teachers have fallen victim to budget politics. Both houses of the General Assembly this week struck Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed teacher scholarship from this year's budget, putting it off until next year. Meanwhile, Glendening (D) says he will not fund a popular bill designed to woo new teachers with signing bonuses, stipends and the promise of mentor support.
All that remains is a slew of smaller, well-intentioned measures that are not expected to fill many classroom vacancies.
"It's unfortunate," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "We are not going to be competitive [with other states], and it will affect the quality of education."
The teacher shortage was first felt last fall, when many school districts in the Washington area and across the country struggled to find enough math and science instructors. Many had been enticed away by the higher salaries of booming high-tech industries.
But state education officials expect the real crunch to come in about two years, amid rising student enrollments and a wave of baby-boomer teacher retirements. In 2001, Maryland schools will need to hire 9,000 new teachers, nearly twice as many as they hired last year, according to the latest calculations by state officials.
Meanwhile, the number of graduates from state teaching colleges has stagnated. Last year, about 2,500 students graduated from Maryland education programs, and only about two-thirds of them stayed in the state to teach.
Across the country, other states facing the problem have responded with nationwide recruitment campaigns, extravagant signing bonuses and even housing vouchers.
Grasmick was one of the first in Maryland to champion the issue last year, proposing that the state become the first to offer teachers a break on their state income tax. That idea went nowhere. Lawmakers were skittish about tampering with the tax code.
But other suggestions by Grasmick were embraced by legislative leaders this year. They sponsored her "Quality Teacher Incentive Act," a $25 million package that includes $3,000 signing bonuses for top graduates of teaching schools, state-funded salary increases for teachers who get national board certification or who work in troubled schools, tax credits for teachers who continue taking education classes and grants for school districts to hire mentors to coach young teachers.
The bill could move to the House floor as early as next week.
But Glendening did not include funding for Grasmick's package in his annual budget, and aides say he does not plan to add it to his budget update this spring.
Glendening's budget secretary, Frederick W. Puddester, says the governor considered several approaches to address the teacher shortage and decided that his own $6 million scholarship plan was a better solution.
The $3,000-a-year scholarships would be awarded to students who maintain a 3.0 average and promise to teach at least one year in a Maryland public school for every year they receive the grant. Puddester claims the governor's plan could have had an immediate impact: This year's college juniors could have gotten the scholarships for their final year beginning next fall, then committed to jobs in Maryland classrooms as early as fall 2000.
As for Grasmick's proposal, Puddester said the governor had no criticism. "You just can't fund all the good ideas," he said.
But while the Senate last week approved the teacher scholarship, and the House is expected to do the same, budget-cutters on both sides said they would not fund the program this year and pushed it off until until fall 2000.
It was the General Assembly's first slap this year at any of Glendening's initiatives. Lawmakers say that it is too late in the year to create scholarships that would have to be awarded by the end of the summer but that they would be glad to fund the program next year.
But they also said that Glendening presented an overblown, tightly balanced budget that far exceeded the legislature's statutory spending limits, forcing them to cut something.
"That's his own fault," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. The governor "did not show any restraints. . . . He threw it all in and left us to clean up."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, disagrees with Glendening's emphasis on scholarships. Grasmick's package of incentives would have a more immediate effect, he said.
"Maryland is falling behind in incentives to enhance the quality of teaching," Rawlings said, noting a Massachusetts plan to offer $20,000 bonuses to the best new teachers and a North Carolina effort to raise average salaries.
Several other bills aimed at addressing the teacher shortage have been introduced this session. But only one has advanced far: a bill sponsored by Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) and passed by the Senate that would allow retired teachers to return to the classroom while still collecting their pensions.
Other bills would offer tax credits to retired teachers who agree to return to the classroom at entry-level wages or would extend the probationary period to give struggling new teachers another chance to succeed.
Karl Pence, head the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the union strongly supports the scholarships and a version of Grasmick's mentoring proposal. He also said Maryland should create a statewide "job bank" to help link teacher candidates with job openings.
One other bill that has a good shot at passing would create a special commission to study the shortage. But it does little to appease Grasmick.
"You don't have to study this," she said, "to know that we have a very severe teacher shortage."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company