COLUMBIA, S.C. — The teacher shortage in poor, rural districts in South Carolina is so bad, the state is considering offering would-be instructors a way to graduate from college debt free.
The catch? They have to spend eight years in the state's neediest districts, where turnover is the worst and the closest Wal-Mart can be up to 45 minutes away. There's another, perhaps even bigger, hurdle with Gov. Nikki Haley's proposal: The state doesn't have enough teachers interested in its current $5 million loan-forgiveness program.
"We're in deep trouble," said Melanie Barton, director of South Carolina's Education Oversight Committee. "We used to go to Ohio and Pennsylvania a lot to get teachers. Now those states don't have surpluses."
The teacher shortage is nationwide. In South Carolina, colleges are graduating about 2,000 fewer teachers than needed. Many college students don't want to become teachers and the ones that do typically don't want to work in remote places. States are offering to wipe away college loans or increase salaries, but the incentives haven't enticed enough teachers.
In Indiana, the Legislature recently passed (March 22) the "Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship," rewarding students who commit to teaching five years in any public school with up to $30,000 off their college tuition. But the program is limited to 200 students yearly who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school class.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican who sponsored the measure, called the program an "innovative way to encourage high school students."
"In today's economy, we realize our top-performing students have many college and career options," he said.
California faces one of the nation's most severe teacher shortages: Enrollment in college education programs has dropped more than 70 percent over the last decade, according to the Learning Policy Institute.
A bill to reinstate a program slashed during the recession offers loan forgiveness to graduates who spend four years in a disadvantaged or rural area teaching a subject where there is an identified shortage. But to get to pre-recession levels, California districts will need to hire 60,000 new teachers.
"You really can't afford to be a teacher if you owe $20-25,000 in student loan debt," said bill sponsor, Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat, adding California's high cost of living in many cities makes being a teacher even more challenging.
A state task force in Idaho, on the other hand, determined it would be more effective to increase average teacher salaries, said Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education.
Under the South Carolina governor's proposal, students could get $30,000 worth of student loans erased by working in one of 20 districts where teacher turnover ranged from 11 percent to 34 percent last year.
"There's nothing worse for a child to see teachers come and go, because it makes them feel it's not worth teaching in their school," said Haley, who grew up in Bamberg, a town of 3,500 people. The teachers will "become part of the community, so it may not have a movie theater and may not have a restaurant, but it has a community they fall in love with, and that's what we're going to focus on."
The existing Teacher Loan Program, created in 1984, offers less money — up to $20,000 for tuition — but the loan is erased in as few as three years if the graduate teaches a hard-to-fill subject, such as science, in a "critical" school. If the job doesn't fit both criteria, the loan's forgiven in five years.
And that doesn't require teaching in a rural district, since high poverty rates mean 70 percent of schools statewide are "critical." Yet, since 2013, a drop in applicants has left the program unable to spend the $5 million legislators provided in the budget.
Thelma Sojourner, superintendent of Denmark-Olar schools, said she's optimistic about the new rural teacher proposal. Her district of 700 students, nearly all of them living in poverty, posted a teacher-turnover rate last year of 20 percent.
She said she is lucky to keep a teacher for three years.
"Their eyes are always looking to see, 'How can I get to a larger district with more to offer?' If the opportunity comes, they take off," said Sojourner, a Denmark native who's worked in the district for 45 years, the last six as superintendent. "If they are a good teacher, look at how many lives they can touch in seven or eight years. It would make a tremendous difference in terms of student performance."
Haley asked legislators to put $13.5 million into the rural initiative. The South Carolina House instead put $8.2 million in its budget toward the plan and an additional $9 million to poor districts to be used as one-time teacher signing or performance bonuses. The Senate hasn't taken up the plan yet.
In South Carolina, first-year teachers make just slightly more than graduates' average debt of $29,000.
"Money isn't everything," said Jane Turner, director of South Carolina's Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. "But if you've got a student loan to pay back, you have to look at starting pay. That's why we're looking at ways for people to become teachers without incurring a lot of debt."
The Associated Press tried unsuccessfully to talk to teachers in the current loan forgiveness program. Messages left with multiple district officials were not returned.
Fourth-grade teacher Lori Clarke, who went back to college from the business world to become a teacher, got $45,000 worth of loans forgiven through the state's separate Career Changers program.
Those loans were erased in three years of working in a high-poverty school in the Columbia area. She ended up staying for 11.
"You kind of fall in love with it, where they need you so much," said Clarke, who now teaches in a nearby district. "My colleagues there really acted as a family, not only to each other but to the children they taught."
Associated Press Writer Christine Armario in Los Angeles contributed to this report.