One of the provisions in the now dead SB 451 education reform bill was a retooling of the Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship and Loan Assistance Fund, to try to encourage more West Virginia high school students to train to become school teachers in hard-to-fill disciplines.

Most of the debate about SB 451 focused on charter schools and education savings accounts. The Underwood-Smith provision flew under the radar, and died with the collapse of the bill. However, lawmakers are now trying to revive the teacher training scholarship as its own bill.

HB 3145 replaces the existing program with the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program Fund that significantly increases the value of the aid and directs scholarship recipients to earn teaching degrees in math, science and special education.

Under the revision, the state will pay four years of tuition for students who graduate high school with at least a 3.25 GPA and agree to “teach full-time in the subject area of mathematics, science, or special education at the elementary, middle, or secondary level, or special education at the elementary, middle or secondary level, in a geographic area of critical need.”*

The bill targets the disciplines of math, science and special education because many counties have chronic shortages in those classes, often filling them with teachers who are not certified in the subject matter.

Students agree that within one year of graduation they will go to work and teach for at least five consecutive years in the state. If they don’t, they would have to reimburse the state.

The cost estimates I have seen range from less than $500,000 to $1 million annually. That’s a bargain for a state that is desperate to get more qualified school teachers in the classroom.

It also makes sense. Imagine a bright student from a rural county getting significant financial help with college as long as they stay in the state—maybe even return to their home county—to teach school. The scholarships will benefit these young West Virginians, while also filling a dire need in the public schools.

The enhancement of the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program won’t solve the teacher shortage by itself. The state still needs to pay teachers more while giving county school boards the authority to pay more for hard-to-fill positions.

However, the program can be part of the solution to our critical teacher needs.

*(The bill was amended in the House Monday night to add music teachers to the scholarship program.)


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