Archive for Tuesday, August 11, 1998


August 11, 1998


— The Lawrence school district has divided its substitutes into two categories: regular and emergency.

An acute shortage of substitute teachers has left states and school districts scrambling this summer -- advertising, raising pay and even lowering qualifications as they try to prepare for fall.

Kentucky has decided to let some districts hire substitutes with just a high school diploma. Michigan is considering allowing subs with the equivalent of two years' college, and other states are weighing raising the number of days that each sub can work.

Lawrence public schools, too, are feeling the pinch. Last spring, the district's human resources director reported trouble maintaining an adequate pool of available substitutes.

In Washington state, administrator Linda Louwsma found herself scraping for substitutes after her Federal Way school district this summer began shopping for full-time teachers.

``I noticed a lot of my subs are getting hired,'' said Louwsma, who handles substitutes for the Federal Way schools. ``So I'm pounding the pavement here in August to get new subs in.''

Louwsma's 22,000-pupil district between Tacoma and Seattle had one day last year when 12 percent of its teachers and other staff were absent. ``There must have been something in the air,'' she says.

But it's no laughing matter when school employees are making frantic phone calls at 5:30 a.m., or classes are canceled and students reshuffled, or principals are called in to teach, and districts must compete for the same teachers.

A pool of 300 subs at Federal Way sounds big for a district with 2,350 employees, but ``they're either busy, not wanting to work that day, they want a three-day weekend, too, or they're working for another district,'' Louwsma laments.

Even less amusing is that students, in hours and days that add up over 12 years, may be deprived of instruction by qualified teachers.

One paradox of the current crunch is that some teacher absences are caused by the imposition of higher academic standards: Regular teachers must undergo more training that takes them out of classrooms.

``You can either pay more or you can lower standards,'' said Warren Fletcher, a Los Angeles substitute teacher who's been doing the job for 15 years and makes $131.26 a day -- the high end of substitute pay.

But Fletcher, head of the substitute teacher caucus of the National Education Assn., makes no more than a sub with no experience. Trained to teach English, he's been thrust into many other classes, even those for the deaf and hard of hearing although he cannot sign.

That's life in California, where laws to reduce class size have turned many would-be substitutes into full-time teachers and drained the sub pool of its top talent. Family leave laws and generous leaves in teacher contracts also add to missing days.

And the booming economy has made other work more attractive for many teachers, especially since substitutes often receive a daily rate far below regular salaries and without benefits.

In Lawrence, the school board this spring enacted a new ``emergency substitute'' policy to handle the situation, said Lois Orth-Lopes, president of the Lawrence Education Assn.

The pay in Lawrence: $74 a day, or $102 a day if placed in a long-term situation of five or more consecutive days.

``It's very hard on some days to find a substitute,'' Orth-Lopes said. ``It's a statewide problem.''

Substitute teachers are divided into two categories in Lawrence: regular and emergency. Regular substitutes have teaching degrees; emergency substitutes have at least 60 hours of college credit and are either a retired teacher, a student who has finished schooling but is not yet certified, or someone who has had experience working with youths.

Emergency substitutes are called only after the regular substitute list has been exhausted.

The problem is in most every district.

``November and December were difficult months for us,'' said Pam Taylor, substitute coordinator for Jefferson County public schools in Kentucky. ``Lots of our merchants around here were advertising for positions for the Christmas rush.''

The district, which includes Louisville, has about 5,400 teachers during the 177-day school year -- the equivalent of close to 1 million teaching days. It used substitutes for the equivalent of 60,000 teaching days but couldn't find substitutes for 2,000.

To entice more substitutes, the district now is raising minimum daily pay to $60 from $53, and top pay to $91.37 from $87.

But the district is also one of five in Kentucky allowed this year to use substitutes with only a high school diploma. The cutoff had been about two years of college.

In Michigan, too, lawmakers are considering temporarily lowering the cutoff. The latest proposal would allow students training to be teachers to be substitutes if they have at least 60 semester hours of college. The cutoff had been lowered two years ago to 90 hours -- the equivalent of having finished the junior year.

Colorado, in turn, has increased the maximum number of days a substitute may teach in a year. Nebraska did the same the year before.

And in North Carolina, the Legislature is considering minimum pay requirements for substitutes, and linking pay increases to the increases for regular teachers.

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