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Schools across the country offer teachers more money to staff their classrooms

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Imagine going shopping for school supplies only to find the store shelves are empty. No backpacks. No notebooks. No index cards. What's missing in many school districts across the country, though, is much more crucial. There are not enough teachers. Some schools are offering big money just to staff their classrooms. Grant Gerlock of Iowa Public Radio has the story of what one district is willing to pay to keep their educators from calling it quits.

UNIDENTIFIED CHEERLEADERS: (Chanting) Bang, bang, do your thing. This ain't nothing but a Rider's thing. Say, aye, aye...

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: A football scrimmage for Roosevelt High School in Des Moines is a welcome back for Friday Night Lights, complete with cheerleaders and the Rough Riders marching band. Students are ready to get back to school, too, with new schedules and new teachers.

AZARIA MUTHIE: Azaria Muthie (ph). I'm going to be a senior. I go to Roosevelt High School. One of my favorite teachers, Ms. Graber (ph) - shoutout to her - I'm excited to do AP government with her.

GERLOCK: K-12 schools, large and small, have been racing to find enough people to teach government and Spanish and physics and special education. Des Moines is no different. More than 300 teachers resigned or retired last year. That's at least 80 more than the year before. Matt Smith is the district superintendent.

MATT SMITH: Missing a teacher is tough, right? Missing any teacher is tough.

GERLOCK: So when administrators saw what was coming, they worked out a new deal with the teacher's union. It's a $50,000 retirement bonus for longtime educators if they stay one more year, money the district usually sets aside for early retirement. Fifty thousand is a lot, more than some teachers' annual salary. Fifty-eight have taken the money. Smith says it's worth the cost to avoid an even worse staffing problem.

SMITH: Those are nearly 60 positions that were not vacant in Des Moines public schools for us also trying to fill it. So that's another year of instruction that students are going to benefit from from these individuals that have got just a wealth of experience. And they're so successful with kids.

GERLOCK: One of those teachers taking the 50,000 is Mary O'Connor (ph) and her husband, David (ph). We met outside the middle school where she teaches P.E. and he teaches social studies.

MARY O'CONNOR: We actually came up with the idea of, what if they paid us to stay?

GERLOCK: Mary says they were ready to retire last year. But staying helps them afford health coverage until they qualify for Medicare.

M O'CONNOR: I think the important thing for us was the chance to have some buy-in on the insurance that we have, which we love, before we turned 65.

GERLOCK: Paying teachers to not retire is unique. But retention and hiring bonuses upwards of 2,000 or $5,000 are common across the U.S. - or even more. A high school near Charlotte, N.C., is offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus, looking for someone to teach math. Paul Bruno, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, says schools should target incentives at the jobs that are hardest to fill, whether that's math teachers or hourly workers like bus drivers.

PAUL BRUNO: Given that the unemployment rate is so low and the labor market is so tight, if you want workers in these positions, you're often going to need to be competing more aggressively. And that means compensating them more.

GERLOCK: As it stands in Des Moines, 97% of the teaching jobs are filled, thanks in part to that $50,000 deal to put off retirement. Thing is, social studies teacher David O'Connor says that's about the same as the district paid just a couple of years ago for teachers to retire early. At the moment, that's all been flipped around because of the shortage.

DAVID O'CONNOR: Right now, at least, it's a one-year thing. It helps for the short term. But there's still - the long-term issue is still there.

GERLOCK: In fact, dozens of jobs remain open in Des Moines. That means the current teachers will be filling gaps. And the toll that takes could shape what the teacher shortage looks like next summer. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "RETURN TO BLACKNESS (FOR GB)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.