AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Auditors not sure Georgia's $15 million teacher incentive program is worth it

A new state audit argues that lawmakers may want to reconsider the need for incentive programs aimed at attracting more and better-trained math and science teachers.

Lawmakers approved the program in the late 2000s because of concerns that the state faced a shortage of math and science teachers, something the audit said may not currently be true.

The program is budgeted to cost more than $15 million this year. Auditors said the state has spent about $90 million in incentives since the program's inception.

Under the program, K-5 teachers who get an "endorsement" in math and/or science education - largely extra course work - could get an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a year for five years.

While the number of teachers getting the endorsements has increased, the audit said the incentive money goes to a relatively small number of educators.

Auditors said one of the problems is that it costs an average of $1,500 to pay for the classes and materials - closer to $5,000 at the University of Georgia - to obtain the endorsement. So the small, temporary increase in salary isn't worth the work for many teachers. Also, there are few local programs to earn the endorsements in some areas of the state.

Another part of the program provides financial incentives to relatively new math and science teachers in grades 6-12. Auditors said the number of teachers receiving those incentives has remained relatively stable.

One of the reasons may be that many colleges of education aren't using the incentives as a recruitment tool to try to get students to go into math and science education. Auditors said that's partly because they didn't know about the program, and partly because they weren't aware it was being funded.

Auditors also noted, "The grades 6-12 salary incentive is not being used as a recruitment tool because of a lack of confidence in the continuation of the funding stream or a perceived lack of need."

The "lack of confidence in the continuation of the funding stream" issue has long been a problem in education incentive programs. For years, the state paid extra money to teachers who went through a time-consuming national certification process. Teachers were promised a 10 percent supplement after earning national certification, but the state reneged on the deal, cutting out the extra pay in the late 2000s. Some of the state's most highly certified teachers wound up getting massive pay cuts during the Great Recession because they lost the supplement.

Auditors said a study by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission suggests that Georgia may not be currently experiencing the math and science teacher shortages reported in various national studies.

Based on the impact of the incentive efforts, auditors said, "the General Assembly may wish to revisit the continued need for the math and science incentives in their current form."

Professional Standards Commission officials said that they believe the state will, in fact, experience a shortage of math and science teachers in future years.

In their response to the audit, commission officials also said the incentive programs are still relatively new and that they should be given more time to address design and implementation issues before lawmakers evaluate whether to keep or scrap them.


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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.