Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that states must develop plans that would require the assignment of high-quality teachers to schools with high percentages of low-income students.

The federal agency’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, sent a letter to chief state school officers – among them S.C. Superintendent Mick Zais. By next spring, states will be required to develop plans to ensure that school districts and their students have the same access to strong teachers and the instructional materials as wealthier schools, the letter said.

“Yet family income and race still too often predict how likely a child is to attend a school staffed by great educators,” the letter stated. “This inequality is unacceptable.”

In Aiken County, most teachers are rated as highly-qualified, said Dr. Cecilia Hewett, the School District’s associate superintendent of administration.

“We use a protocol that principals have to have to take teachers with highly-qualified status,” she said. “The only time we don’t do that is for critical needs positions that are difficult to fill.”

First-year teachers come in highly-qualified, based on their Praxis scores – a state test that requires passing a general test and a test in the applicants’ specific instructional area. In some unusual circumstance, a teacher new to the district may receive a short-alternative certification.

The Department has no authority to have a role in Districts’ hiring and placement practices. However, the agency has scheduled a meeting next month “to begin the process of developing a statewide recruitment, engagement and retention plan for hard-to-staff schools,” agency spokesman Dino Teppara said. That program was already underway before Duncan and his staff introduced their own announcement.

The publication Education Week cited Duncan’s acknowledgment that there are no quick fixes, and the federal agency itself won’t develop the best ideas. However, he proposes that strong teachers gain access to effective principals.

Hewett reiterated that Duncan’s statements aren’t clear in determining what a “great teacher” is. The majority of Aiken County teachers are “great,” Hewett said, but that’s a broad, generic word.

Aiken County overall has the choice of more applicants than far smaller, rural districts, she said. Still, schools in the Aiken and North Augusta areas do have an easier time in getting highly qualified teachers than areas such as Ridge Spring and Wagener. Further, there are not that many foreign teachers available for all areas, but the District keeps looking, Hewett siad.

“It depends on the subject area, and it’s more difficult because of the drive to those areas,” she said. “Yet some teachers have driven there for many years, and others come from those areas.”

The District works with principals to sell their schools in terms of recruitment factors and the use of the District’s hiring database, Hewett said.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.