Across the United States, school districts are facing a problem: There just are not enough certified teachers to meet the mandates of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative.
Historically, rural areas have had the most trouble attracting qualified teachers. In recent years, though, as housing costs have skyrocketed, even the more attractive urban and suburban school districts are having problems. But now, some of these districts think they have found a solution.
In New York City, the teacher shortage is most keenly felt in three areas: math, science, and special education - that is, classes for children with learning disabilities. In this sense, the city is not alone. A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that 60 percent of America's eighth-grade students are being taught math by teachers who did not formally study the subject in college, and are not legally certified to teach mathematics.
But starting this year, that could change in New York. Dan Weisberg of the city's Department of Education says the school system is going to start subsidizing the housing costs of newly-hired math, science, and special ed teachers. "There's a $5,000 upfront payment for housing costs, and then there is a $400 per month stipend for the first 24 months of their employment with us," he says of the new plan. "In return, they sign a contract committing to at least three years of service in one of our high-need schools."
It is an idea that a number of school districts across the country are considering, or have already implemented. Most of them are either on the west coast, or in the northeast - areas that have seen a tremendous increase in housing prices over the last ten years.
California's Santa Clara Unified School District actually built subsidized housing for new teachers five years ago. Business administrator Roger Barnes says the district was recruiting heavily from other states - but new teachers were not staying.
"We were going to Colorado and Arizona and Montana to find teachers, and they would move here, and they would stay for a year, and then they would move back to where they came from," he says. "And what they were telling us when they left is that they couldn't afford to live here."
The school district owns 40 apartments, which it is renting out to 55 teachers, at about half the average monthly rate for northern California. The district plans to build another 26-unit apartment building, and it has also implemented a mortgage assistance program that loans teachers $500 a month interest-free, so they can use the money to buy a house.
But why not just pay teachers more? Roger Barnes says that would be cost-prohibitive, since the district would have to raise every teacher's salary - even the ones who started teaching in Santa Clara long before the housing boom began. "The teachers who've been around - [who] already have their house, [are] already ensconced in the area, [and are] already part of the community - they're going to stay with us anyway," he says. "But the new teachers that we bring in from out of the area are the ones who can't afford to live here. So by giving them housing at half of the normal price, then they can afford to stay here and grow their roots, become part of the community."
In other words, housing subsidies are a way for school districts to target particular types of teachers they need - new ones from out-of-town, in the case of Santa Clara, and math, science, and special ed teachers, in the case of New York City.
The new plan to offer subsidies to educators specializing in certain subjects has actually gotten the approval of New York's largest teacher union, even though it could be argued the plan discriminates against those who specialize in other areas. But Dan Weisberg of the city's Department of Education says the math and science shortage has become so egregious, that teachers from all subjects understand.
"The reality is - and teachers know this - there is a particular shortage in these license areas. That's just the reality. So in order to meet that need, we have to do something that provides an incentive for those teachers."
New York is hoping its new housing subsidy program will attract at least 100 new math, science, and special education teachers to the city before the start of the new academic year in September.