Teachers Increasingly Look to Mountain States for Jobs

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States that have fared better than most in the recession, such as Wyoming and Montana, have seen a spike in applications from teachers outside their borders.
For many laid-off teachers in hard-pressed Eastern states, there's one strategy that holds out promise: Look to the West. 

With more than 100,000 teaching positions estimated to have been erased across the country this year, many back-to-school stories this fall have zeroed in on teacher layoffs and larger class sizes. But a different story has emerged in the few states that have managed to avoid cuts and, in some cases, have even expanded their teacher corps over the past few years.

Education leaders in some of these states, many of which are mineral-rich and in the West, say the past few years have brought a dramatic increase in applications from teachers in other states — some who have been laid off during the recession, others who are drawn by the lifestyle and comparative economic stability. "People think there are jobs here for them," says Elizabeth Keller, Montana's education licensure manager.

And there's something to that. Montana ranked second in the country, behind only North Dakota, in its percentage increase in teaching positions from 2008 to 2010,  according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Keller's office issued 46 percent more teaching licenses for out-of-state applicants in that same period, while the number of in-state applications remained relatively flat. State officials in North Dakota say the number of licenses issued for out-of-state candidates dramatically increased there, as well.

But the greatest out-of-state influx has been in Wyoming, which has seen the number of out-of-state teaching license applications jump by roughly 70 percent over the last few years, according to Andrea Bryant, a program consultant for Wyoming's Professional Standards Teaching Board. "They just keep going up," she says.

There's at least one good reason for the increased teacher interest in Wyoming. The state pays its teachers well. Wyoming is in the upper third of states for average salary and in the top five for starting salary, according to the most recent figures from the National Education Association. But those numbers are even more impressive when cost of living is taken into account. Using a state comparison model developed by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Wyoming's starting salary in 2009, just north of $43,000 in real dollars, was tops in the country.

Jacob Fischer, a first-year shop teacher at Lander Valley High School, in Lander, Wyoming, is making more than his mother, who's been teaching for 10 years in Minnesota, his home state. "She's actually looking into moving to Wyoming," he says.

Mountain generosity

Wyoming spends the second most among the states on K-12 education per student, just behind Vermont, according to the most recent data available from the NEA. While energy money has bolstered Wyoming's finances — it accounted for one third of the state's overall revenue last year, according to the Census Bureau -  no other energy-rich state cracked the top ten in revenue per student. Wyoming dramatically increased its funding for education in 2005, driven in part by court decisions in the state that found the previous funding model unconstitutional.

Mike Bowman, superintendent of the school district in Lander, says the change in funding has made it easier to attract out-of-state candidates, which, he thinks, improves the quality of education, particularly in a state with only one college producing teachers. "I think you strengthen your program if you have diversity built in there by academic preparation," says Bowman. "My ideal school would have people from the University of Wyoming teaching next to someone from Oregon State University."

Wyoming's appeal hasn't been lost on other states. At national conferences, Wyoming's Bryant jokes that licensure colleagues from other states give her grief about her state's popularity. "Oh, Wyoming," they tell her. "We don't want to talk to you, because you're taking our teachers away."

Melissa McGrath, a spokeswoman for Idaho's Department of Education, says she wasn't surprised by news reports this summer of teachers from Idaho moving to Wyoming for better pay. She says she hopes Idaho's new pay-for-performance system will stem part of that tide. While the measure received some criticism from legislators who worry about how it will be funded, McGrath said the department hopes the plan — which rewards teachers for improved student achievement and supplements income for hard-to-fill positions — will keep the state's best teachers from leaving for higher salaries in Wyoming or outside the profession.

Balance of trade

When they attend conferences, state education officials from all over the country discuss the import and export of teachers. Pennsylvania, for example, produces more teachers than can possibly work there, so it winds up exporting many of them to other states. On the other side, Hawaii and Alaska are (like Wyoming) considered import states, although Hawaii has lost a significant number of teachers just in the last two years.

Arizona districts have lost more than 4,000 teachers from 2008 to 2011, according to the state's department of education, but officials say that has mostly to do with declining enrollment and doesn't mean those teachers are necessarily leaving the state. "I'm not aware of any mass exodus of teachers because of budget cuts," says department spokesman Andrew LeFevre.

No state is poised to lose more teachers than California, but Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, says he's not sure whether laid-off teachers have been looking for work in other states. In years past, competing states did try to woo California teachers. "Texas was putting up billboards trying to recruit people," he says. But those are all gone now. Deep education cuts in Texas mean that it has begun to lay off thousands of teachers itself.

The modest gains in states like North Dakota and Wyoming aren't likely to make up for the thousands of jobs lost in more populous states such as Texas, California and Florida. And large increases in applications for out-of-state teaching licenses in Western states don't necessarily translate to equivalent increases in the number of out-of-state teachers.

In Wyoming, however, the boom in out-of-state interest has allowed schools to be more selective, as they choose from dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of applicants for every position. Whether that will lead to better education remains to be seen. The state is increasingly focusing on school accountability to determine whether its money is being wisely spent.

But it's clear that the influx of outside interest has already harmed one group of students in the state: education majors at the University of Wyoming. Kay Persichitte, dean of the College of Education, says recent graduates are now competing with veteran teachers from other states for vacancies. "It's very hard for them to distinguish themselves," she says. Increasingly, her graduates are themselves being forced to look for work out of state or applying for jobs in subjects that aren't their first choice.

Before the recession, Persichitte says the College of Education's placement rate was approximately 90 percent. Now, the number is significantly lower. "This is a particularly tenuous environment for colleges of education as they're preparing the next generation of teachers," she says. "At some point people will start to think twice about is this really the career path for me."