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Florida heads US staffing crisis

United States

Stephen Phillips on why mass retirements and new class-size limits leave a state needing 25,000 teachers.

FLORIDA must find 25,000 new teachers by next September. The gaping hole in its staffing is created by the impending retirement of more than 10 per cent of its 141,270 teaching staff and the need to comply with strict new class-size directives.

Florida's plight, which highlights the staffing crisis sweeping across American schools, is flagged in an alarming new report from the state's parliament. Staffrooms are full of older teachers as a result of a 1960s recruitment boom and the high turnover of younger staff.

And the worst is probably yet to come. In Miami, America's fourth-largest education authority, retirements will shoot up from 602 next June to 2,376 in 2004, said Cindy Soell, executive director of staff recruitment.

Nearly half the United States's teachers are aged over 50, while barely 15 per cent are in their 20s or 30s. The skewed age distribution will leave schools across the country needing up to 2.7 million teachers over the next five years, the National Center for Education Statistics said.

Meanwhile, Florida is also struggling to get to grips with a new law, approved by voters in a referendum earlier this month, which is billed as America's most ambitious class-size initiative to date.

The amendment to the state's constitution caps infant classes at 18 and high-school classes at 25. The cost has been put at between $8 billion (pound;5.3bn) and $27.5bn to pay for new schools and teachers.

To woo staff, union leaders called on legislators to hike the wages of Florida teachers, ranked 31st among American states at an average of $39,275 (pound;26,000). But, like other US regions, Florida is juggling the need for an aggressive teacher recruitment campaign with a mounting budget deficit.

Republican governor Jeb Bush last week raised the spectre of expanding licensed gambling businesses and overturning his cherished tax-relief policies to pay for the smaller class sizes.

"There is not clear direction yet on how to proceed," admitted Philip Handy, chairman of Florida's board of education, which will assume control of the state's schools in January.

Mr Handy is considering offering bonuses for older teachers to stay on and making it easier to draft in new recruits from non-traditional educational backgrounds. "We'll be a laboratory for these kinds of things," he predicted.

Recruitment is only half the battle, though, he said. Also being considered are initiatives to boost retention. About one in five new teachers bows out in three years.

In staff-strapped Miami, Cindy Soell said she is sending some of the city's teachers to university career fairs in other states to drum up interest in vacant posts. Staff are authorised to sign up candidates on the spot, provided references and credentials check out.

So far there are no plans for recruitment drives in Britain.

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