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Bush offers plan to lure teachers

But the proposal, including $50-million for signing bonuses, is expensive.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY and SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- With a troubling teacher shortage threatening to get worse, Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed an ambitious -- and expensive -- package to lure people into teaching with signing bonuses and easier certification, and to keep them there with better pay and training.

The proposal announced Thursday carries a $169-million price tag, which might be a tough sell in a Legislature facing revenue shortfalls. But Bush, joined by Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, said he will make teachers a top priority.

"I don't think Tallahassee's job is to be the end-all, be-all as it relates to education policy," Bush said. "But we sure as heck better be a lot more supportive than we have been in terms of funding and providing the necessary support for the pressing problems that we face."

The priciest part of the governor's proposal is his offer of signing bonuses of at least $1,000 to beginning teachers, which carries an overall cost of about $50-million. The idea has had some success in Massachusetts, which in 1999 started offering four-year $20,000 signing bonuses.

Bush also wants to create an "adjunct certification" plan to enable college graduates to teach part time so long as they demonstrate they know the content they would teach. And he envisions a recruitment campaign targeting college students and knowledgeable retirees.

The plan includes initiatives already under way.

Bush wants to continue to reimburse tuition costs and forgive student loans for new teachers in critical shortage areas, and he wants to continue to make it easier for non-education majors to get into teaching through alternative certification.

As always, the issue of overall teacher pay and benefits hovers over any effort to lure and retain teachers. Bush said he is committed to boosting salaries, but he declined to reveal a dollar figure until he releases his entire state budget proposal next week.

Legislative leaders voiced support for Bush's ideas but cautioned that they may arrive at different numbers as the budget takes shape. House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, suggested that signing bonuses might be offered only to teachers in critical shortage areas, such as math and science.

"Will we be able to get the $50-million (for signing bonuses)? I'm certainly going to try my best. We certainly will do something," said Sen. Jim Horne, an Orange Park Republican who oversees the Senate budget-writing process.

State teacher union leaders on Wednesday got a sneak peek at the governor's proposal.

"I'm happy to see that the governor has made this a priority. Now the Legislature needs to listen to that message," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association.

Dinnen was optimistic about much of the package but wants to see more done. "The $1,000 signing bonus is a good step; but the way young people look at finances these days, you need to go beyond that," she said. "You need to look at the overall funding, look at bringing our salaries up to the national average so we can compete."

Though teacher shortages are hampering school districts across the nation, the problem is particularly acute in a high-growth state such as Florida. The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates that during the next nine years, Florida will need 162,000 new teachers. The problem is not only in attracting new teachers but keeping the teachers we have. Pinellas County schools only have about 25 positions unfilled this week and have tried to sweeten the pot for new teachers by putting in place initiatives such as a signing bonus and assistance with moving expenses for those in critical teacher shortage areas.

In Hillsborough, the district has been short 100 to 150 teachers much of the school year. Hillsborough superintendent Earl Lennard joined Bush at the news conference announcing proposal. "The most exciting thing is the overall support from members of the Legislature and the governor," Lennard said, "and the acknowledgement that compensation and respect for the profession are major parts of what draw people in."

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