Georgia officials are hoping to lessen the state's shortage of math and science teachers by sweetening the pot for those just starting their careers.
By the end of the month, 3,100 of the state's newest math and science teachers will receive $1,461 to $6,577 through an incentive plan put into law in 2009 and funded for the first time this year.
Ashley Shaver, a second-year science teacher at Gwinnett County's J.E. Richards Middle School, said the extra money coming her way is "welcome and exciting. ... Times are hard, and everybody's scrimping."
The incentives - costing the state $12.3 million this year - are supposed to help entice and retain public school math and science teachers. They target newer math and science teachers in grades six to 12 by offering a first-year teacher the equivalent of a six-year teacher's salary and narrowing the pay gap for teachers in between.
But with the economic downturn forcing spending cuts, including unpaid furlough days for teachers, lawmakers didn't fund the incentives until earlier this year - well after the school year had started and long after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue sounded the alarm that in 2008 Georgia colleges produced only one physics teacher.
State Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House education committee and sponsor of the 2009 bill, called the pay incentives a "beginning step."
"We are very committed to finding teachers who can teach the higher math and the higher sciences, like physics, that are so critical," Coleman said.
Math and science teachers who taught in the recently completed school year are to receive the incentive pay in a lump sum by June 30, the close of the state's fiscal year. For a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, it means a jump on the state salary schedule from $33,424 a year to $37,985, the current pay for a six-year teacher with the same experience. The teacher will keep that same rate of pay for the next five years, provided he or she still teaches math or science and the incentive is funded annually by lawmakers.
In some school systems, that's a few dozen people. For example, in Forsyth County, incentive checks are going to 55 math and science teachers. But in Fulton, 264 teachers will receive the extra money.
The shortage of math and science teachers across the nation and in Georgia has been well documented. A report from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission showed that in 2010 the state was facing teacher shortages in math, science, Spanish and special education, with the largest in Spanish.
Shortages are calculated, at least in part, based on the number of full-time teachers compared with the number of fully certified teachers, with the assumption being school systems would use only fully certified teachers if there were enough to go around.
But there aren't enough. The percentage of Georgia public school teachers not fully certified in 2010-2011 was 9 percent in math, 9.7 percent in science and 16.4 percent in Spanish, according to information provided by the standards commission.
Philip Smith, who graduates in August from Georgia State University with a master's degree in the art of teaching mathematics, hadn't heard about the pay incentives for new teachers but liked the idea.
"It definitely has an appeal," said Smith, who hopes to teach integrated math in public schools. "I'll probably go to the highest bidder and to whatever school has a good reputation for taking care of teachers and getting results."
Brian Benton, an engineering teacher at Cobb County's Walton High School, said he expects the pay incentive to attract more people to teaching.
But he's not sure how he feels about hardworking veteran teachers like himself being left out.
"I had to go through the ranks to earn my money," said Benton, a 10-year teacher who is faculty adviser and coach for Walton's award-winning robotics team. "How come you're not paying me more?"
Alan Essig, a former state budget analyst who runs the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute research institution, said time will tell what impact the incentives will have.
Considering all the cuts to education in recent years, "the fact that they found a small amount of money for something as vital as math and science is positive," Essig said.
"Whether it is a token thing to say we've done something or whether it's really going to have an effect on retention and recruitment of high-quality math and science teachers, that's what we have to look at in the future," he said.
The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teachers group, expressed serious reservations about the incentive plan when it was before the Legislature, spokesman Tim Callahan said.
"What are we saying to our reading and social studies teachers [and] others?" Callahan said.
He also pointed out that lawmakers promised extra money to teachers who pursued national board certification, but later withdrew the offer.