01/08/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

A Golden APLE for California's Teachers

It gets harder every day to be a teacher in California. Educators, students, and residents alike may have breathed a sigh of relief with the passage of Proposition 30, which prevented another round of paralyzing reductions to state education funding by creating a revenue stream drawn from raising taxes on the state's highest income earners. Yet even with $6 billion now in the state's pipeline to keep our educational system from going under, there's still no reasonable assurance that the recently cut Assumption Programs of Loans for Education (APLE), an invaluable program that cultivated a qualified teaching workforce for the state, will be restored to keep a flow of newly trained and proficient teachers filling California's classrooms.

Designed by the California Legislature, APLE set out to address the state's shortage crisis of well prepared K-12 classroom teachers by helping to relieve students interested in teaching careers of some of the burden of their education loan debt. In exchange for their commitment to teaching specific subject areas suffering a severe shortage, such as math or science, or teaching children with special needs, or teaching at a designated low-performing school -- a percentage of their loan would be forgiven.

Under the APLE programs, up to $11,000 of student loan debt is repaid by the state in return for up to four years of teaching service in California. If a student chooses to become a teacher of math, science, or special education, an additional $1,000 is assumed each year. And if he or she chooses to teach one of these subjects at an academically low-performing school in a poor urban neighborhood, another $1,000 a year would be paid off, for a potential total of $19,000 in loan assumption benefits.

APLE was an honest program, strategic and smart, that intended to cultivate and grow a profession and workforce essential to our welfare and of paramount importance to our future.

According to the California Teachers Association, nearly one third of current teachers are nearing retirement and the state will need an additional 100,000 in the next ten years. Adding to the shortage crisis is the reality that it's hard to find and keep good teachers, particularly in poor communities where schools lack many basic resources and students most need a good education in order to achieve any real and lasting social and economic mobility. The high attrition rate for new teachers is alarming, given 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years, and in urban schools a staggering 50 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years. And teachers are just getting by; they're still paid less than other professions that command a comparable level of education and training.

It's a painfully sad fact that California's classrooms are the most overcrowded in the nation, with the Golden State ranked rock bottom last -- 50th -- in student-to-teacher ratios, while state cuts to education have dispensed with 17,000 teaching positions over the last several years. Adding to the pain is that both the number of prospective teachers earning a teaching credential and enrollment in teacher-preparation programs in the state are in precipitous decline.

Good teachers are fundamental to what is essential to a civilization: giving the next generation the tools, competencies, and sensibilities they will need to carry on with what we value as a society moving forward. Teachers, at their very best, change lives. French author and philosopher Albert Camus, himself an immigrant, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Algiers without a father and with a deaf and mute mother. He then went on to write one of the most widely celebrated novels of the Twentieth Century. A few months after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he wrote this to his teacher, Monsieur Germain:

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I hear the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of this would have happened. I don't make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me an opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little school boys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Now, more than ever, teachers with a "generous heart" matter -- we shouldn't let the hype over MOOCS (Massive Open, Online, Courses) fool us: all learning is relational, and "generous" teachers will be more, not less, important in the age of blended learning and other technologically enhanced teaching.

We should value teachers, but we've kicked them to the curb. APLE offered very real financial support to students who aimed to do something honorable with their careers by becoming teachers and who are looking to make a difference for California and the world. By reinstating the APLE program, California can renew its commitment to growing a strong and vital teaching workforce and ensure that our collective tomorrow will indeed be a golden one.