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SC agency wants $2 million more to incent teachers to work in impoverished schools

Number of impoverished schools continues to rise in South Carolina

By Jamie Self
jself@thestate.com

COLUMBIA A state agency wants $2 million more for loans to attract aspiring teachers to work in South Carolina’s neediest schools.

But, as more state schools are deemed needy, some education officials are asking whether the teachers who get the state loans are going to the schools that need them most.

Last week, the state Board of Education approved a list of schools where teachers can work and get forgiveness on some loans, including the S.C. Teacher Loan. The loan program provided $4.6 million in support to about 1,300 teachers in fiscal year 2012-13, according to Chuck Sanders, president of S.C. Student Loan, a nonprofit education lender.

The Education Oversight Committee, the state agency tasked with making recommendations to improve schools, is asking state lawmakers for an additional $2 million next year for the teacher loan program to provide 500 more loans, said Melanie Barton, the committee’s executive director.

At the Board of Education meeting, S.C. Superintendent Mick Zais questioned whether the gradually expanding list of needy schools – now accounting for a majority of all state schools – was defeating efforts to channel teachers to the “most needy” schools. He asked whether steps should be taken to narrow the list of qualifying schools to encourage teachers to work in places with greater need.

The loan program has been “one of the major recruitment tools for teachers in the state,” said David Longshore, who chairs the board’s Education Professions Committee. “But it won’t take a hurt to look at it.”

To reduce the number of schools that are eligible for the loan program, the Oversight Committee has recommended that the General Assembly increase the poverty threshold for schools to qualify to 80 percent from 70 percent, Barton said.

About 65 percent of the state’s elementary, middle and high schools now qualify as places teachers can work to receive some forgiveness on their state teacher loans. (Teachers working in critical subject areas, including math, science and special education, also are eligible for payoff opportunities.)

The number of eligible state schools has been edging up for several years, according to an analysis The State newspaper completed of data provided by the S.C. Department of Education and the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University.

Schools must meet at least one condition to qualify. They must:

• Receive a school report card rating of “below average” or “unsatisfactory”

• Have a teacher turnover rate of 20 percent or higher, or

• Have a poverty index of 70 percent or higher. That poverty index is based on how many students are on Medicaid or apply for free or reduced meals, Barton said.

Poverty an increasing factor

This year, 817 schools qualified for the list as being needy; 95 percent of those schools met the poverty threshold. The share of schools qualifying as needy, based on poverty, has been on the rise in recent years.

By contrast, 20 percent of schools qualified based on performance and 19 percent based on teacher turnover.

What to do about poverty in the state’s schools is still a persistent question, Barton added. More than 80 percent of the students in almost half of the state’s schools live in poverty.

Board of Education member Larry Kobrovsky said there is an even greater problem than determining the best approach to teacher recruitment. He questions whether any recruitment efforts will work when underlying issues persist at “failing” schools.

Schools with poor academic performance ratings also have high turnover rates, indicative of underlying problems in the classroom. “That’s the definition of chaos,” Kobrovsky said.

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