A variety of lures have been offered over the years nationally to recruit teachers to out-of-the-way schools, and many districts have developed grow-your-own programs that encourage rural residents to become teachers. But the shortfall persists.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

OPINION: If state paid their student loans, would teachers move to rural Georgia?

When I began writing about state education policy in Georgia in 1997, a big concern was recruiting teachers to rural districts that lacked amenities that appealed to 24-year-olds, such as burger joints and aerobic classes. 

We’re still talking about that problem, although in 2020 it’s cold brew and hot yoga that young college grads can’t get in rural Georgia. 

A variety of lures have been offered over the years nationally to recruit teachers to out-of-the-way schools, and many districts have developed grow-your-own programs that encourage rural residents to become teachers. But the shortfall persists. 

State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, is suggesting a new strategy in Georgia – loan forgiveness for teachers. The average graduate of a public college in Georgia ends up $27,000 in debt, so Belton said the need is clear.

Under his proposal: If teachers sign up for five-year stints in 220 hard-to-staff rural schools or 105 low-performing schools, most in metro Atlanta, that are turnaround eligible, Georgia will underwrite up to $25,000 of their loan repayment.

Belton outlined the impetus behind House Bill 736 in the House Higher Education Committee today where he found a sympathetic panel.

Georgia is among the states with the most daunting teacher vacancies, including 3,112 last year, said Belton. It will only get worse as enrollment drops in teacher prep programs and new teachers continue to quit in droves after their first few years, he warned.

Nationwide, this slowing and leaking teacher pipeline is most acute in special education, math, science, and bilingual education.

There are catches in House Bill 736; it limits loan forgiveness to teachers who earned their degrees at Georgia colleges. It would be open to 1,000 teachers at first. With $5,000 provided to each teacher per year to erase debt, the state’s investment in year one would be $5 million. 

Much of the discussion in the House Higher Ed Committee centered on widening the pool of teachers. Perhaps, lawmakers suggested the bill should speak to incentives rather than loan forgiveness so veteran teachers without debt could be recruited. The loan repayment could extend to teachers who owed on master’s degrees. 

There were good questions, too. How does the state give newly recruited teachers loan absolution without upsetting the teachers already at these schools who also carry student loans?

Among the biggest catches: In the current economy, young people in Georgia can find jobs in metro areas or close to them. Many of these college grads grew up in metro regions and are unfamiliar with rural communities and what they may have to offer.

As one research paper concluded: 

Teacher preparation is key to recruiting and retaining rural educators. If teachers are prepared for the reality of rural life and appreciate its positive aspects, they will be more likely to remain in their positions. Rural administrators can help acculturate—and retain—teachers by providing opportunities for professional development, connecting teachers to their peers in other rural communities, fostering relationship with parents, and supporting ways to integrate staff members into the community.

Even with that, an article in the Harvard Graduate School of Education journal cautioned:

Yet despite the many benefits of teaching in rural area, there is also hardship. Access to services such as good healthcare, not to mention a gym or full-service grocery stores, often requires traveling long distances. It can be hard for a young teacher to have a vibrant social life, and for partnered teachers, it can be a challenge for their spouse or partner to land a job. And rural teachers earn, on average, $11,000 less per year than urban teachers and $13,000 less than suburban teachers, according to a Rural School and Community Trust 2017 report.

Any ideas how to attract new teachers to remote parts of the state and keep them there? 

A superintendent once told me his strategy was to play matchmaker, hoping that, if his bright young teachers didn’t fall in love with rural life, they still might stay in the job for a rural mate.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.