The Virginia Retirement System has calculated that about 40 percent of the state's public school teachers will be eligible for full retirement benefits in the next seven years.

Fearing a growing teacher shortage, Virginia officials are conducting a statewide survey to find out how many teachers are likely to retire. "We believe there is evidence of a teacher shortage that will continue to grow," said Bill Leighty, the retirement system's director.

Maryland officials have similar concerns, they said. The number of Maryland teachers eligible for retirement will jump from 9,905 in 1998 to 29,177 in 2002, said Education Department spokesman Ron Peiffer.

In both states, officials said the teacher shortage is due to growing student enrollment and many baby boomers reaching retirement age. In Virginia, the problem is compounded by a rule this year that dropped the minimum retirement age from 55 to 50 for teachers with 30 years of service.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul D. Stapleton has sent a four-page questionnaire to all school superintendents, seeking the number of teachers who retired this year because of the new retirement rule, as well as the numbers of anticipated retirees in 2000 and 2001.

The state Department of Education will use the figures to prepare a report that will be released to the General Assembly in March, a department spokeswoman said. State officials said the report may trigger more intensive efforts to recruit teachers, as well as financial incentives for older teachers to stay longer.

Ralph Shotwell, director of finance research and retirement services for the Virginia Education Association, the state teachers' union, said he looks forward to the survey results buttressing the organization's efforts to win better pay and working conditions.

National surveys indicate that schools will need 2.5 million new teachers by 2010, about 20 percent more than normal for that time frame.

In the Washington area, affluent districts such as Fairfax County have had little trouble finding teachers, but less-favored districts such as Prince George's have had to scramble.

Northern Virginia school officials said they expect an increase in teacher retirements over the next several years. They have not yet noticed a surge because of the lowered retirement age, but they noted that many senior teachers still are considering their options.

There are significant numbers of 50-year-old teachers with 30 years of service, Leighty said, because "it used to be you could graduate from high school and immediately become a teacher."

In the past, about one-third of teachers have retired right after qualifying, but the rate for those retiring under the new rule seems higher, Leighty said.

He said some school superintendents have decried the loss of veteran teachers, while others have said that "30 years is long enough, and I can hire two 22-year-olds for the same price."

Jack Esformes, 52, a former government teacher at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, said he took advantage of the lowered retirement age this year because he wanted to see his ailing father more often and participate more in his teenage daughter's life. He hoped school administrators would find a way to compensate retired teachers who show new hires the most effective way to reach students, he said.

T.C. Williams Principal John Porter said he was sorry to lose Esformes, a much-praised teacher, but did not see the new rule having much effect yet. "We have some 30-year veterans here who are at the top of their game," he said.