Katrina Leaves Alabama Schools Shorthanded

Even before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf region, sending hundreds of thousands of evacuees scattering through neighboring states, Alabama's schools faced a serious teacher shortage. A survey of the state's school districts reveals an unusually high number of unfilled teaching jobs and now. With an influx of nearly 4,000 new students from Louisiana and Mississippi, the problem is escalating.

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Even before Hurricane Katrina struck, the state of Alabama was facing a serious teacher shortage. Now the problem is getting worse. The state is scrambling to absorb hundreds of new students displaced by the storm. Tanya Ott reports from member station WBHM in Birmingham.

TANYA OTT reporting:

Longtime educators say the number of unfilled teaching positions in Alabama is unprecedented and they're not sure what they're going to do with all the new students. Department of Education spokeswoman Rebecca E. White says classroom sizes will swell, especially in some of Alabama's coastal counties that were themselves battered by Katrina.

Ms. REBECCA E. WHITE (Department of Education): And that's where we're trying to focus on trying to see if we can't get substitute teachers and more counselors and nurses and support staff in these schools to help with that flow.

OTT: White says 36 teachers displaced from Louisiana and Mississippi have already requested emergency certification to teach in Alabama.

Ms. WHITE: The governor's waived that $49 background check fee for these folks, so we are waiving the usual circumstances that it takes to become a teacher and get certificate here in Alabama.

OTT: Florida governor is also courting displaced teachers.

Ms. WHITE: He can't have them. No, I'm just kidding.

OTT: She jokes, but Alabama is 45th in the nation for teacher pay, and longtime educators say competition from higher-paying states like Florida and Georgia is a big reason there's a serious teacher shortage here this year. In the lounge of Birmingham's McElwain Elementary School, union representative Jeff McDaniels has spent the day talking with teachers about what they want.

Mr. JEFF McDANIELS (Union Representative): In short, people are making less money now because the cost of goods and services has gone up and, unfortunately, people again are looking at other alternatives.

OTT: Young teachers are lured to Florida and Georgia for signing bonuses. Many older teachers are retiring or leaving for private industry. The problem is especially acute in rural and urban districts. Birmingham, for example, started the year with more than 50 unfilled positions. Superintendent Wayman Shiver says students may be stuck with substitute teachers for weeks, possibly months.

Mr. WAYMAN SHIVER (Superintendent): It may mean that--particularly if they have more than one substitute in some period of time, that they're getting mixed messages, they may not be getting instruction from the most qualified person.

Professor MICHAEL FRONING (Dean, School of Education): Well, it means they get an inconsistent, poorly conceived education.

OTT: Michael Froning is dean of the School of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Prof. FRONING: Unfortunately, in this country that happens more often to kids of poverty than it does to kids of affluence.

OTT: Hoping to stem the flow of teachers out of Birmingham, Superintendent Wayman Shiver resorted to the controversial step of invoking the so-called 45-day rule. It prohibits teachers under contract from quitting less than 45 days before school starts. Critics say it smacks of indentured servitude, but Shiver defends the practice.

Mr. SHIVER: I have to have my classes covered by highly qualified certified teachers and if I keep allowing them to leave just any time they choose, that just puts me further and further in the hole.

OTT: The Mobile County school system also invoked the 45-day rule. Even before Hurricane Katrina sent scores of displaced children to Mobile, there were at least 100 unfilled teaching positions. For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.

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