With rural districts struggling, NH lawmakers contemplate student loan forgiveness for teachers

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The state has had persistent shortages of science and mathematics teachers.

The state has had persistent shortages of science and mathematics teachers. Getty Images

By ETHAN DEWITT

NH Bulletin

Published: 12-02-2023 4:49 PM

New Hampshire school districts have been competing to retain and recruit new teachers for years. But some say schools in rural areas of the state are facing bigger challenges than others.

The work can be uniquely challenging – and more lucrative teaching jobs in wealthier districts are sometimes just a town or two away.

Now, lawmakers in the Senate are attempting to help. A bill approved unanimously by the Senate Education Committee this week would create a “rural educator incentive program” that would make student loan repayment grants available to teachers who work in qualifying rural districts.

“We’ve heard from teachers (and) school administrators about how important a loan repayment incentive program is, and how necessary it is to keep educators in the profession,” said Sen. Donovan Fenton, a Keene Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.

Fenton’s bill, Senate Bill 217, would apply to school districts in which there are fewer than 20 students per square mile living within the district. It would also apply to districts in areas that the Department of Health and Human Services has designated as rural.

Currently, 104 school districts in the state meet those criteria, according to Fenton.

Under the proposal, educators employed at the school would be eligible for repayment of “all or part of” their outstanding student loans, depending on whether they exceed the cap.

Those that are approved would receive four years of loan repayments: $1,500 in the first year, $2,500 in the second year, $3,500 in the third year, and $4,500 in the fourth. The maximum total payout would be $12,000. Educators would need to work in the same school district for all four years to get the full benefit.

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Sen. Ruth Ward, a Stoddard Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, agreed that the problem is acute.

“I think there’s no question that we need to do something for our teachers,” she said to the committee Monday. “By looking at the salary scale, they’re not at the top layer of people getting a decent salary.”

The bill, proposed in early 2023, would direct the Legislature to set aside $1 million in the first year after the bill’s passage and $2 million in the second year. It would be up to future lawmakers to continue funding the program after that.

The bill will be voted on in the Senate later this year after receiving a 4-0 recommendation from the committee. It will then go to the Senate Finance Committee.

In a statement after the vote Monday, Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state’s largest teachers union, applauded the bill as an “important tool to removing barriers for educators getting into the profession.”

“Today’s unanimous, bipartisan vote in support of the establishment of a rural and underserved area educator incentive program is an important step toward boosting the pipeline of future public school educators,” Tuttle said.

The idea for the proposal came from the state’s committee to study New Hampshire Teacher Shortages and Recruitment, a joint panel of representatives and senators that has met for several years.

According to NEA-NH, educator shortages have been a problem for years in New Hampshire but the COVID-19 pandemic made them worse.

As pandemic-related learning loss has made the profession harder, many teachers retired during COVID-19, causing major gaps. The resulting hiring crunch gave other teachers the opportunity to leave their districts for higher paying jobs in other districts, which in turn has put less wealthy districts at a disadvantage

Data show that salaries are low for teachers just entering the field: The median entry salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree in New Hampshire is just under $40,000, the legislative study committee found in a report this year. In less wealthy districts, that salary can be as low as $30,000. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average cost of living in New Hampshire in 2021 was $56,727 per year.

The idea of incentivizing teaching jobs in struggling school districts has been gaining popularity: 25 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of statewide loan repayment program to encourage teachers to take jobs in underserved districts, according to a 2022 report from the Education Commission of the States.

The state has had persistent shortages of science and mathematics teachers, noted former Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, in his own testimony on the bill. Kahn was the chairman of the teacher shortage committee until he retired in 2020; Ward now leads the committee.

Kahn said his committee found that school districts that paid less had the greatest challenge in recruiting teachers. Those with lower paid teachers also had lower student performance, he said.

“In rural areas where there are smaller enrollments and fewer courses offered in those schools, teachers need multiple certifications,” Kahn said, speaking to the Senate Education Committee in February.

Some school districts, like Keene, have implemented their own, smaller student loan repayment program for new hires, as a way to compete for staff. But Kahn noted that not all school districts can afford that approach. And he said a statewide model would be more effective at incentivizing teachers to go to the needier districts.

More teacher recruitment, in turn, could boost student performance in those same districts, Kahn said.

“We do need a replacement measure for economically disadvantaged school districts,” he said. “Free and reduced lunch just is not going to make it.”