McKee wants Wavemaker fellowships to address state’s teacher shortage

It’s no secret Rhode Island doesn’t have enough teachers.

Which is why Gov. Daniel J. McKee wants to give student loan reimbursement to recent college graduates who teach in Rhode Island schools by expanding the state’s Wavemaker Fellowship program.

But the once sought-after program has waned in popularity amid temporary federal student loan forbearance and forgiveness programs during the pandemic. The 144 applications received for the 2022 cohort marks a 45% drop over the prior year, and is less than one-third of the 425 applications received in 2019, according to data from R.I. Rhode Island Commerce, which runs the program.

Yet advocates insist the Wavemaker program is poised for a comeback, and could be a way to help combat the state’s teacher crisis.

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“The amount of student loan debt for people coming out of teacher preparation programs has ballooned,” said Mary Barden, executive director for the National Education Association Rhode Island. “Any type of incentive to assist with that debt is critical.”

More than half of educators took out loans to pay for college, with an average outstanding balance of $58,700 as of 2021, according to a report from the National Education Association.

Even the up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness proposed by the Biden administration isn’t going to get most teachers out of debt. And that’s assuming the debt cancellation plan holds up to U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny.

“While the fate of federal forgiveness remains unknown, the state of Rhode Island has money to go out the door,” McKee said in an emailed statement. “Wavemaker is happening, and more than 1,000 fellows have benefited since the launch in 2016.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Ryan Pearson, a vocal proponent of Wavemaker since it began, expects applications to begin to pick up again now that federal student loan forbearance programs have ended.

“It totally makes sense that during the period when 90% of loans were not in repayment, people wouldn’t have the need to apply for a tax credit program for student debt relief,” said Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat. “As loans go back into repayment, we’re going to see a lot more people paying attention to their student loans again.”

Started under former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo to reduce the “brain drain” in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, the program offers annual tax credits of $1,000- $6,000 for up to four years to college graduates who stay and work in the state.

For the first time this year, the program is also open to health care workers, as approved in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget. Applications for the health care cohort, which will be separate from the group for STEM workers, are expected to launch “in the coming weeks,” said Commerce spokesperson Lindsay Russell. Commerce declined to answer any other questions about the program, including about future demand.

McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget includes an extra $800,000 funding to expand the program to teachers, for a total of $2.4 million. McKee has also recommended extending the program, which was set to expire at the end of 2023, until 2024.

The Rhode Island Department of Education has thrown its weight behind McKee’s proposal. Victor Morente, a department spokesman, called it an “innovative and creative approach” to education workforce woes, in an emailed response.

Rhode Island’s starting teacher pay second-lowest among peer states

Pearson unsuccessfully sought to add teachers to the Wavemaker program for several years. He has again introduced legislation this year, and with McKee’s backing, was optimistic for passage.

“We know teachers are jobs we really need in Rhode Island, and this is essentially direct compensation to keep them here,” Pearson said. “It’s like getting a pay raise.”

Which is especially important since Rhode Island’s starting teacher pay is the second-lowest among peer states, according to a 2022 report by the Rhode Island Foundation. Not to mention the year of unpaid student teaching that prospective teachers have to get through before even landing that first teaching gig.

“Financial incentives for Rhode Island teachers is definitely an area we need to expand,” Barden said. “Wavemaker is a good first step, but we also need a larger, comprehensive strategy that addresses recruitment and retention.”

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.