Intense demand for teachers nationwide is challenging private schools to sweeten the pot or risk a decline in quality as more instructors pick public schools, teachers and administrators in private education say.
Pay raises, signing bonuses and smaller classes have combined to make teaching in public schools more attractive. And as California and other states continue to relax their certification requirements, private school teachers could find it easier to jump to public schools.
"I think private school was a great place for me to learn--I wish I could have stayed there forever . . . but unfortunately they just can't compete with the public schools' pay and the benefits," said Carmella Ward.
She is nearly doubling her paycheck by switching this September from Holy Redeemer in Montrose, a Catholic school where she taught one year, to Washington Elementary in Pasadena's public district.
The trend that Ward represents poses a "clear and present danger to the long history of quality in independent schools," said Patrick F. Bassett, president of the National Assn. of Independent Schools. "What we're finding is--for the first time--the field is shallower than it has been."
The U.S. Department of Education projects that by 2008, elementary and secondary school enrollment will have risen 3%--by 1.6 million students--over 1998 totals, with grades nine through 12 and schools in the West and South growing the most. And U.S. teachers are graying. The median age of public school teachers was 33 in 1976; today, it is in the mid-40s.
As a result, public schools will need at least 2 million new teachers in the next decade, the Department of Education projects. That is 66% of their current teaching corps. Private schools--which educate 11% of U.S. students--have an even greater need. They must find more than 500,000 teachers in that time, or 126% of their current ranks.
The Department of Education and professional groups do not keep figures on the numbers of teachers who move between public and private schools. But trade associations and school districts confirm that many more private instructors are entering the public system.
States, cities and school districts short on teachers have set up crash training courses for recruits and offered bonuses to professionals willing to switch careers. Some districts are plucking instructors from countries such as the Philippines, where a $30,000 salary might seem a fortune.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of many that recently gave teachers a pay raise--11.5% in L.A. Unified's case.
A first-year teacher with no experience and no state teaching credential can expect to make just under $35,000 per year, said Antonio Garcia, the district's recruitment director. That is nearly $7,000 more than the median salary for beginning teachers at independent schools in the West, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools.
In the Anaheim City School District, new hires receive $2,500 for signing up, while recruitment bonuses in Massachusetts public schools are as much as $20,000.
"When you're young and newly out of college and you've got a $40,000 to $50,000 [college loan] bill . . . those lures are awfully tempting," said Robert Teegarden, director of education for the California Catholic Conference.
Few private schools can match those incentives. Parochial schools in particular feel competition from richer public districts and are struggling to retain and recruit teachers without increasing tuition.
"I did like being there," Cindy Mendiola said of St. Joseph High School in Lakewood.
But with a new house and a child, she can really use the 50% raise she'll get by teaching math this fall at Cerritos High School.
"That's pretty much my mortgage payment now," Mendiola said, "and I can still live like we did before with my [new] income."
Private schools tend to pay their teachers about 70% to 80% of what public schools pay, but often can offset the disparity with smaller classes, better-behaved students and greater autonomy for teachers. The private school advantages, however, are shrinking and may no longer be enough.
"I think the quality-of-life difference that we use to justify the gap only goes so far," said Paul Horovitz, head of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. "The reality is people have families to feed."
When California and other states cut class sizes, at least in early grades, private schools lost some of that edge.
"It's not a very hospitable job in the public schools, or it hasn't been," said Edes Gilbert, president of Independent Educational Services, which helps private schools find teachers. "But the public schools are figuring that out and taking steps to improve that--and throwing a lot of money at it."
The trustees who govern independent schools are responding with paltry raises, Gilbert said.
"They're lagging behind," she said. "If you raise the salaries, you have to raise the tuition."