Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. students build a prosthetic hand for a woman in the Philippines Thursday, March 28, 2019.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School STEM instructor Jason Holmstrom works with students Hannah Eck, 9; David Valentine, 8; and Alexzander Montpelier, 8, to build a prosthetic hand for a woman in the Philippines in March.

As the focus on careers in science, technology, engineering and math continues to build, a bipartisan bill that would provide up to $20,000 in tuition reimbursement for new STEM teachers in New Jersey schools is advancing in the state Legislature.

If approved, the bill could provide opportunities in 12 schools throughout Atlantic County, said co-sponsor Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.

Several loan redemption programs are already available through the state and federal government, especially for those who pursue certain degrees. The new funding, provided through the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, is intended as both aid and an incentive for students pursuing degrees in education and teaching STEM, said its sponsors.

“In order for us to continue to grow our labor force, we have to start right in our classrooms, by engaging students and nurturing their interest in these subjects. To accomplish this we must encourage more recent graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to pursue careers in education,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D- Essex, one of the bill’s primary sponsors along with Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen/Passaic.

Under the bill, a teacher hired to teach STEM in a state-designated “low performing school” may receive a loan redemption of up to 25% if that teacher remains at the school for four years, for a total amount not to exceed $20,000.

The bill also establishes a tuition reimbursement program for a portion of the eligible expenses incurred by a teacher who is completing a master’s degree or doctorate program in STEM.

“We have a generation of children who need the skills to thrive in our modern economy, and we have a generation of college graduates struggling to pay off student loans, so we have an opportunity to help our families by giving our children a chance to succeed while lifting our graduates out of crushing student loan debt,” Brown said.

Careers in STEM are in high demand. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates STEM-related jobs will grow by nearly 10% over the next decade, with a median salary of $84,880. But the bill’s sponsors say a wage gap still exists between STEM professionals in other fields versus education.

“This bill will create greater financial incentive to teach, rather than take a private-sector job, and in turn ensures that we have a robust pool of STEM teachers,” Sarlo said.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate last month and now heads to the Assembly for consideration.

The Office of Legislative Services’ fiscal analysis of the bill said the financial impact was indeterminate, but noted that based on state assessments administered in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, about 292 schools in 164 districts satisfy the bill’s criteria to be designated as low-performing public schools under the loan redemption program.

Brown said the bill would be applicable at Buena Regional High School, Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex in Atlantic City, Egg Harbor City Community School, Egg Harbor Township High School, Jordan Road School in Somers Point, North Main Street Elementary School in Pleasantville, Pleasantville Middle School, Texas Avenue School in Atlantic City, Washington Avenue Elementary School in Pleasantville, Atlantic Community Charter School in Galloway Township, and Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point.

Under the bill, HESAA would be required to submit an annual report to the governor and the Legislature on the program. The report would include information on the total number of participants, the impact of the program on attracting STEM teachers and the number of participants who withdrew prior to completing the program.

Contact: 609-272-7251

CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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