ANCHORAGE -- Faced with a national teacher shortage and aggressive recruiting by other states, Alaska education officials are considering incentives ranging from health club memberships to forgiveness of state student loans to attract and keep teachers in Alaska.
Alaska used to draw plenty of teachers because of high salaries and an excellent retirement plan, said Bruce Johnson, deputy state commissioner of education.
``Now we have mediocre salaries and a high cost of living,'' he said. ``You leave your extended family (to come to Alaska) and have all the costs of going out to see them.''
In rural Alaska, harsh living conditions, especially poor housing, drive teachers out, say union representatives and people who hire for the Bush.
Alaska districts hired 1,335 new teachers during the last school year, but had 84 unfilled positions on the first day of school, and some of them remained open for months, state officials report.
Openings for special education teachers, math teachers and speech pathologists were especially hard to fill.
Because they can't find qualified applicants, districts are hiring more people who don't meet state requirements for teachers. State records show that 20 people taught with emergency certificates in 1998-1999, up from just seven the year before.
Alaska education officials say the state needs to give enough money to districts so that they can increase teacher pay. Just five years ago, Alaska offered the highest average teacher salary in the country, according to the Association of Alaska School Boards. Last year, the state ranked sixth, but the cost of living in remote areas of the state can be astronomical compared to most parts of the Lower 48.
The average salary of Alaska teachers last year was $46,170.
In rural Alaska, rapid turnover of teachers is getting in the way of academic improvements.
Decent housing, running water, flush toilets and realistic expectations about life in the Bush are important to rural teachers, said Johnson, the deputy state commissioner.
``The pioneer notion that you can use an outdoor bathroom and live in a log cabin is not very appealing to people in the 21st century,'' he said.
The state Department of Education has yet to narrow down what incentives would be most effective, but is considering some that would take legislative approval.
State administrators plan to make recommendations to the board this fall that include increasing salaries, forgiving state student loans for teachers who work in rural areas, paying some moving expenses, offering signing bonuses in fields where there are shortages, and offering computers and gym memberships.
Also: Giving higher salaries to teachers who are certified by a national board, improving rural housing for teachers, and offering orientation so that new Bush teachers know what they're getting into before they go.