Birmingham -- In the lounge of Birmingham's McElwain Elementary school, union representative Jeff McDaniels chats with a 35-year teaching vet who will soon be retiring. It's time to leave, she says. It's something McDaniels is hearing a lot these days from teachers, even those nowhere near retirement age.
"People would like to be paid more. 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."
Alabama is 45th in the nation for teacher pay, and McDaniels says young teachers are being recruited to higher paying states like Florida and Georgia, where districts routinely offer thousand dollar signing bonuses.
"In Alabama the trend has been for an employee not to secure his or her first pay check until September 30th. A signing bonus kind of erases that problem and gives them, I guess, cash in hand before they ever work one day on the job. And to a young person that's attractive."
Long-time educators say the number of unfilled teaching positions is unprecedented in Alabama this year. Older teachers are retiring and others are lured by private industry.
The problem is especially acute in rural and urban districts. Birmingham started the year with more than 50 unfilled positions. Superintendent Waymon Shiver says students may be stuck with substitute teachers for weeks, possibly months.
"It may mean that, particularly if they have more than one substitute in some period of time, that theyre getting mixed messages. They may not be getting instruction from the most qualified person."
"It means they get an inconsistent, poorly conceived education."
Michael Froning is dean of the UAB School of Education."Unfortunately, in this country that happens more often to kids of poverty than it does to kids of affluence."
At Birmingham's Whatley school, where nearly all of the kindergarten through eighth-grade students are black and low-income, there's a vacancy in the special education department, and principal Michael Wilson isn't optimistic.
"My hopes are high that I'll find somebody, but the reality of it is that I probably won't. And I'll probably end up having to put a substitute in that position and then overtaxing my other two special ed teachers."
The pressure is on. The school was recently placed on the No Child Left Behind under-performing schools list because the special ed students didn't make their math benchmark.
Hoping to stem the flow of teachers out of Birmingham, superintendent Waymon Shiver has 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.
"I have to have my classes covered by highly qualified, certified teachers and if I have keep allowing them to leave just any time they choose, that just puts me further and further it the hole in meeting No Child Left Behind."
The Mobile County School system, which started the school year with 100 teacher openings, has also invoked the 45-day rule. The Alabama Education Association says its phones have been ringing off the hook with angry teachers wanting to know how they can break their contracts.
-- Tanya Ott, September 08, 2005