A proposal that President Bush plans to include in his forthcoming budget for fiscal year 2004 might give school leaders an extra tool in their effort to compete with the high-tech sector to recruit and retain highly qualified math and science instructors.

Bush wants to more than triple the aid offered to college graduates who agree to teach math, science, and special education classes in poor schools, enough for many to wipe out their federal student loans.

The president’s proposal would forgive up to $17,500 in debt for teachers who enter fields known for chronic teacher shortages and fast turnover. Prospective teachers in those areas often look for work outside public schools because of many school systems’ relatively low pay.

“Frankly, it’s Economics 101,” Deputy Education Secretary William Hansen said Jan. 21. “The private sector will search out folks with math and science degrees in a very aggressive way, and that is the biggest challenge we have.”

A math teacher’s salary, for example, falls more than $15,000 below that of a statistician or an engineer, according to department figures. Intense workplace pressures make special education courses particularly hard to fill as specialists opt for general education or other careers.

Current law allows teachers in poor areas to have $5,000 in loans erased if they work for five consecutive years.

The Bush proposal maintains the five-year work requirement but limits the increased benefits to those in math, science, and special education. The administration settled on the $17,500 figure because that’s the average amount of federal debt owed by today’s graduates, Hansen said.

The proposal applies only to federal loans.

Schools across America face fundamental problems of quantity and quality in teaching. Teacher retirements and student enrollments combined will produce an estimated shortfall of 2 million educators over 10 years, and the Bush education program requires high-quality teachers of core subjects by 2005-06.

The department estimates the existing loan program will help 38,000 students who will begin their college education next year. Of those, 7,000 are expected to become math, science, or special education teachers and could be eligible for the expanded aid.

Bush’s loan-forgiveness plan resurrects an idea that he and lawmakers have championed before. The House approved a broader version last fall, proposed by former Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., but it died in the Senate.

Graham, now in the Senate, said he expects Bush and Congress to embrace a more expansive offer. Graham’s version would extend the increased loan forgiveness to teachers of any subject in traditionally poor schools and to special education teachers in any school.

Teachers would have to maintain their certification to remain eligible.

“What the taxpayers need to understand is you’re not giving people money,” Graham said. “People are having their loans forgiven by having to work five years.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, said: “The good news is President Bush recognizes that there is a national crisis when it comes to our teacher shortage, especially in the most challenged schools. … However, as we saw with similar Republican proposals last year, if there is no real money behind the increase in teacher loan forgiveness, it’s just another empty promise to the nation’s schools, teachers, and students.”

Expanding loan help for teachers, particularly those serving poor areas, would be a welcome recruitment tool, said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. A comprehensive package, including bigger tax deductions for teachers and more aid for professional development, is what the union wants from federal leaders.

Under the Bush plan, current teachers, not just new ones, would be eligible provided that they meet the criteria, Education Department spokeswoman Jane Glickman said. To be eligible, teachers must have taken out at least some of their loans after Oct. 1, 1998.

The program is expected to cost $70 million a year.

Links:

White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org