MORGANTOWN – Debate on a House bill to recruit STEM teachers to the state by offering them student debt relief revealed an underlying problem: It doesn’t address retention and could be perceived as unfair by teachers already working in the field.
HB 3068 passed out of House Education on Wednesday and head to Finance.
It creates the West Virginia STEM Scholarship Program to “provide West Virginia educators with increased opportunities to pursue a lifelong career in helping educate students in STE fields.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
A teacher employed for five years in a STEM field would be eligible for $5,000 in debt relief. Teaching in the STEM field for 10 years would entitle the teacher to another $5,000 – $10,000 total.
To be eligible, a teacher would have to be a U.S. citizen and be a West Virginia resident for at least one year, have a master’s degree in education, work in a West Virginia K-12 school for at least five years and have debt to be relieved.
The program would begin in January 2024 and end in January 2030.
Answering a question, committee counsel said a teacher already employed who goes back and gets trained in the STEM field and then meets all the qualifications could be eligibile, so the bill doesn’t exclusively apply to new hires.
But delegates’ comments revealed it still creates a tension.
Delegate Dave Foggin, R-Wood, said he works at Parkersburg South High School and has taught in STEM physics and chemistry for 23 years.
“A lot of us already feel discriminated against with the math and special ed pay raise that our county put in after the state allowed them to,” he said.
He has no outstanding student debt but would like to have $10,000 to put toward his truck or house payments, he said. “I feel like this bill discriminates against those who either may be fiscally responsible or may be older and paid that off .”
It would be a better idea to raise salaries, he said. “If you want to attract more teachers, give them more money.”
Answering a question from another delegate, he said that under the pay raise he referred to, he makes $5,000 less than math and special education teachers even though he teaches a lot of math.
Delegate Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha, expressed sympathy for Foggins’ position.
While the bill is aimed at recruiting, he said, “It does leave a hole for those teachers that have made that commitment and are continuing to make that commitment across the state. It troubles me that we can’t do something for them with this.”
He knows that putting more money into the bill would open a major fiscal hole and kill it. But he’d like to see something done for those already working.
Delegate, Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, also recognized the bill’s underlying tension. “I don’t think there’s any easy answer to either side of the solution.”
As far as the bill’s price tag, neither the Department of Education nor the Higher Education Policy Commission could give a solid estimate in fiscal notes attached to the bill.
The DOE said there are 7,068 teachers who may qualify for the program. And that doesn’t count teachers who teach courses in engineering and technology. “The Legislature may want to further define which courses are included in the definition and endorsements section.”
But given the 7,068 figure, it projects a cost of $70,680,000.
HEPC said it can’t determine the number of teachers in the state who may meet the criteria. However, for every 25 teachers eligible, the annual cost would be $125,000 to $250,000, depending on whether they get $5,000 or $10,000.
The committee approved the bill in a voice vote.
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