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THE ISSUE: Improving rural education

OUR OPINION: Governor’s focus on teacher recruitment

and retention should be legislative priority South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday made a push for her 2015 objectives in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday set aside to remember the civil rights leader.

“There is no better way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory and legacy – and his fight for equality – than working together to ensure that our children, no matter where they are born, have access to the best education, that our government is honest and accountable to the all of the people it serves, and that all of our citizens have the opportunity to achieve their hopes and dream,” the Bamberg native said in a statement.

Her words come on the heels of an inauguration address and executive budget release this past week by the Republican governor. She is stressing ethics reform and education as top priorities for this legislative session, looking in particular to build on her fully funded K-12 education package a year ago.

Since then, however, the state Supreme Court has put the state’s leadership on notice that it must come forward with a plan for improvements in the wake of the justices’ decision in a long-standing lawsuit regarding educational inequities in rural districts.

A key component of improvement is addressing the shortage of teachers in rural and poor districts – a dearth that can be attributed to issues inside and outside the schools themselves, from compensation and the classroom to lifestyle and amenities.

Haley, who prioritized help for poor and rural districts a year ago, is putting new emphasis on teacher quality and recruitment. She is calling for work between the South Carolina’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University, the state Department of Education, the Commission on Higher Education and the Education Oversight Committee to develop a rural-teacher recruitment initiative focused on the five incentives:

Homegrown Teacher Initiative — This incentive offers high-school students who graduate from an eligible district four years of subsidized tuition at any public college or university in the state in exchange for not less than two years of teaching in their home district or another eligible district.

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Enhanced Student Loan Repayment — Eligible teachers receive up to $7,500 per year in direct student-loan repayment in exchange for one year of teaching in an eligible district for up to five years.

Rural Educator Salary Supplement — Educators with less than five years’ experience who have not yet secured employment or who choose to relocate from an ineligible district may receive a stipend sufficient to increase their salary an equivalent of five years additional experience on their district salary schedule, up to the 10-year experience pay scale. Educators are eligible to continue to receive this supplement until their 10th year of teaching experience.

Graduate Degrees for Career Educators — Educators with more than five but less than 10 years of teaching experience may receive up to two full years of tuition in support of a graduate degree at any public college or university in the state in exchange for a two-year teaching commitment for each year of graduate education subsidized.

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Teaching Mentors — CERRA may fund the recruitment and training of teaching mentors with at least eight years classroom experience to provide mentorship, support, and training for newer teachers in eligible districts. During the first five years of service, mentors in eligible districts may also receive a salary stipend of $5,000 to compensate for the extra time and effort that goes into mentoring colleagues.

As part of any plan to address shortfalls in rural education, the General Assembly should find the Haley plan a good place to start, with the latest findings from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement reinforcing the need.

CERRA’s annual Supply and Demand Report shows the unmet demand for public school teachers continues to grow.

The number of public school teachers in the state who did not return to their classrooms rose by 5.5 pecent, from just over 5,000 in 2013, to almost 5,300 in 2014. This year’s total, which constitutes about 11 percent of the state’s total teacher population, includes approximately 1,170 teachers who went to teach in another South Carolina district and a little more than 1,100 who retired from the profession. Departures continue to be an area of serious concern when compared to the 2,200 graduates, on average, who completed an S.C. teacher education program over the last five years.

Another issue related to early teacher departures is the large portion who leave soon after entering the profession. Of those who left during or at the conclusion of the 2013-14 school year, 33 percent did so in the first five years of their career and 13 percent after just one year or less in the classroom. These figures rose from 30 percent and 11 percent last year, and this trend continues to negatively impact districts, schools and, more importantly, students.

As Jane Turner, executive director of CERRA, states: “These findings confirm the need to support and maintain strong recruitment and retention efforts across the state, to include providing effective programs that feed the teacher pipeline and support beginning teachers.”

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