COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Stay-at-home-mom Cindy DePace was just hitting 30 when she decided to return to the work force by going back to school and becoming a teacher.
She loved working with kids, could be home in the summer with her own children and had always heard that someone with an education degree would never have trouble finding a job.
Five years later, she has a degree in early childhood education and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to repay, but no teaching job. Instead, she files records at a law firm in South Carolina's capital.
For decades, the growing number of children in the U.S. and efforts in many states to lower class sizes created a high demand for teachers. Private-sector workers who lost their jobs or were looking for a mid-career change often were encouraged to return to school and earn a teaching credential, while states set up shortcuts to get them licenses.
But the Great Recession and its ripple effects on the state and local tax dollars that fund public schools have upended the conventional wisdom that a teaching job is a golden ticket to career stability.
DePace earned her education degree from private Columbia College and got divorced along the way. Now 35, she has given up her dream of working in a classroom.
She had five interviews, attended several job fairs and filed countless applications without getting a response.
"I've got $60,000 worth of student loans that I have to pay back. I'm paying them back as a single mom, and I'm not even working in what I went to school for," she said. "So I feel like I just wasted my money."
A national survey of school districts in June by the Center on Education Policy estimated that 48 percent of them cut teaching jobs last school year. The survey found 84 percent of districts are bracing for additional funding cuts this year.
A survey in May of more than 1,000 school superintendents across the country by the American Association of School Administrators found that 74 percent anticipate having to cut jobs this year, with the majority of those being teachers or teacher aides. An association survey of 692 school administrators found that 48 percent laid off employees last year.
In California alone, budget cuts have led to about 30,000 teachers and more than 10,000 support staff being laid off in the past three years, according to estimates by the unions that represent them. The number of public school teachers in Michigan has shrunk by nearly 9 percent since peaking at nearly 118,000 during the 2004-05 school year, a loss of about 10,000 jobs. That parallels an 8 percent drop in the number of Michigan public school students but also reflects shrinking state aid.
Those just entering the profession also are vulnerable because of school district rules that require administrators to lay off the most recently hired teachers first, meaning some graduates lucky enough to find a job are out of work within a year. The layoffs have made competition fierce for the few job openings that do become available.
Andrea Ross-Woody, a principal at a private school near Sacramento, Calif., said she received about 50 applications for a teaching job that pays $1,700 a month with no benefits. Some applicants have been looking for full-time work for several years. Others recently completed expensive credential programs at for-profit colleges and are carrying large loads of debt.
"It just amazes me that they keep putting more teachers out there and there are no jobs," said Ross-Woody. "We just have a lot of teachers who are out of work. It's just a very sad situation."
In Austin, Texas, a district with 86,000 students is hiring just 72 teachers. Six years ago, it hired 800.
Most of its open positions are for specialties such as bilingual elementary school teachers or science and math teachers in middle and high schools. Graduates with degrees in early childhood education face stiff competition for very few positions, said Michael Houser, a recruiter for the Austin Independent School District.
"It's a triple tragedy in a way," said Wellford "Buzz" Wilms, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been training new teachers for three decades. "The kids invest all this time and they face such a bleak job market. These are some of the best kids in the world, and we miss putting them where they are needed the most."
College students are getting the message. At UCLA, the number of applicants for its teaching program has fallen by more than a third since 2003, Wilms said.
The enrollment numbers for California State University, which graduates the majority of the state's teachers, are even starker. Enrollment peaked in fall 2002 with 31,000 students but has fallen over the past nine years to 13,500 students last year, said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for California State University.
Nationally, the number of bachelor's degrees given in education started to decline after 2006, while the number of degrees in fields such as business and nursing continues to increase, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Some students saw it coming.
Tasha Brannan graduated from Winthrop University in South Carolina in May with a degree in early childhood education, but already had decided to change course as the economy tanked and friends told her about their difficulties trying to land teaching jobs.
"I had heard from so many people who graduated a semester before me or a year before me that had a lot of trouble finding something in the education field. I was really fortunate to find something as quick as I did because I have student loans I have to pay back," she said.
Brannan, 22, is applying some of the skills she learned in her teaching program — patience, flexibility — to a different career: working with a firm that hires temporary workers.
How soon the picture for aspiring teachers will brighten is as clear as predicting when the economy will turn around.
In his recent national address on job creation, President Barack Obama talked about investing $35 billion to prevent the layoffs of up to 280,000 teachers while hiring tens of thousands more, but his plan faces uncertain prospects in a divided Congress.
In the meantime, education professors and school district recruiters offer the same advice: Before graduating, find a job such as a teacher's aide or a substitute that could be a bridge to a full-time teaching position.
That's the route 27-year-old Kim Estey, of Sutter Creek, Calif., has tried to take.
Since earning her teaching credential at California State University, Sacramento in 2008, Estey has worked part-time as a substitute teacher for three districts, earning about $100 a day and hoping to get leads on potential job openings. She recently started tutoring at nights and on weekends to earn extra money.
"I still live with my parents at 27 because they don't want me to give up on my career," Estey said. "There's no way I can move out. I'm engaged and can't plan on getting married until I get a job."
About half the students in her credential program have left education and found work in other fields. But Estey still hopes she can land a full-time teaching job even as she faces more competition from new graduates and seasoned teachers who were recently laid off.
"It's a bad climate right now, but this is really what I'm supposed to be doing," she said. "I'm hoping by next year I'll get something. There is a job out there for me. I've just got to be patient."
Associated Press writer Terence Chea in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Jeffrey Collins can be reached at www.twitter.com/JSCollinsAP