School & District Management

Politics Pulls Teacher Pay to Forefront

By David J. Hoff — January 23, 2006 7 min read
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Teachers may reap rewards on payday during the upcoming school year, thanks to increasingly flush state coffers and the political dynamics of an election year.

Governors from both political parties, in many of the 36 states holding gubernatorial elections in the fall, are urging their legislatures to raise pay for teachers or give them cash incentives to improve their own skills and boost their students’ performance.

The proposals include across-the-board raises in Alabama and New Mexico and a hike in the minimum salary in Arizona. The governors of Alaska and Mississippi are pitching employee bonuses tied to gains in student achievement.

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Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is offering one of the sweetest deals for teachers: a $100 gift card to help them buy supplies for their classrooms, an across-the-board raise, and state underwriting for a portion of their health-insurance premiums.

The teacher-pay proposals in a dozen or more states are possible because balance sheets are healthier than at any time since the economic downturn that ravaged state revenues starting in 2001. Forty-plus states are collecting more money than anticipated in the current fiscal year, and two dozen are raising revenue projections for fiscal 2007, which begins July 1 in most states. (“Legislatures Open Amid Fiscal Surge,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

“State legislatures are willing to talk about things that cost money,” Michelle Exstrom, the senior policy specialist tracking teacher policies for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said last week. “In the past couple of years, they were looking at their programs to see if they were getting their money’s worth.”

The proposals are also a sign that many governors seeking re-election hope to woo educators at the ballot box and impress voters in general with efforts to reward teachers and improve schools.

“I hate to be cynical, but you have to wonder why he didn’t do it last year,” Georgia state Sen. Tim Golden, a Democrat, said of the teacher-pay package proposed this month by Gov. Perdue, a Republican up for re-election. “The fact of the matter is it’s an election year.”

But even if the proposed pay hikes are enacted in Georgia and other states, teachers’ union officials say, the raises won’t be enough to make up for the buying power teachers lost when their salary increases were minimal during the state budget crunches of recent years.

“This is better, but not good enough,” Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said of Gov. Perdue’s proposed 4 percent across-the-board salary increase. “The best thing to keep us competitive [with other states] would be 6 percent or more.”

Not Keeping Up

The NEA calculates that teachers earned an average of $46,735 in the 2003-04 school year and $47,808 in the next school year, a 2.3 percent increase. The increase was less than the 3.1 percent rate of inflation from the earlier year to the next, according to data published by the 2.7 million-member union.

In its most recent salary survey, the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers found that teachers earned an average of $46,597 during the 2003-04 school year, 2.2 percent more than the previous school year.

In their latest budget plans, which are being rolled out as state legislative sessions get under way, some governors proposing to raise teacher salaries across the board would do so in ways that address the specific needs of their states.

In Arizona, for example, Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who is seeking re-election this year, is concentrating on raising the state’s minimum teacher salary. She has chosen that target because the smallest districts in Arizona pay rookie teachers as little as $25,000 a year, said Becky Hill, the governor’s education adviser.

Many recent college graduates take those jobs and leave for higher-paying ones after gaining some experience. “It makes it very hard for them, not just to get teachers, but to keep them,” Ms. Hill said of the small districts. “Over the long run, having a higher minimum impacts the pay scale for everyone.”

Gov. Napolitano would raise the minimum salary to $30,000, at a cost of $5 million a year. She also wants an additional $40 million to give raises to teachers who make more than the minimum. Districts would retain discretion over how to allocate that money, but the $40 million would be enough to give every public school teacher an $800 raise.

Republican Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama, also starting the fourth year of his term, by contrast would guarantee raises to all teachers, but would give the highest increases to the most experienced teachers.

The least-experienced Alabama teachers would receive salary increases of 2.75 percent because Alabama’s starting teachers fare well compared with other states’, but its experienced teachers do not. Under Mr. Riley’s plan, the most-experienced teachers would see raises of 5 percent.

Alabama’s average starting salary of $31,000 ranked 20th in the nation in the 2003-04 school year, according to the AFT. But the overall average of $38,200 was 43rd that year, the union reported.

Incentive Pay

Some governors are proposing extra pay that would reward educators for increasing student achievement or taking on difficult assignments.

Last year in Mississippi, the state completed a six-year plan to raise teacher salaries across the board. Now, Gov. Haley Barbour is proposing pay-for-performance and hardship pay for teachers and other educators.

More for Teachers

Governors in several states are proposing plans to steer more money to teachers, ranging from across-the-board raises to cash incentives tied to student performance.

Alabama: Gov. Bob Riley wants a hike in teachers’ pay of 2.75 percent to 5 percent, depending on experience.

Alaska: Gov. Frank H. Murkowski is proposing bonuses from $1,000 to $5,500, based on student test scores.

Arizona: Gov. Janet Napolitano has introduced a plan to raise the minimum salary to $30,000 and provide bonuses of $800 for teachers already above that salary.

Georgia: Gov. Sonny Perdue is seeking a 4 percent across-the-board raise, with some teachers receiving raises of up to 7 percent.

Iowa: Gov. Tom Vilsack has proposed raising the state’s average teacher salary to the national average.

Kentucky: Gov. Ernie Fletcher wants to raise the average teacher salary to equal the average for surrounding states.

Maine: Gov. John Baldacci wants to increase the starting salary to $30,000.

Massachusetts: Gov. Mitt Romney is seeking cash bonuses of up to $15,000 for math and science teachers, Advanced Placement teachers, and those whose students make the most academic gains.

Mississippi: Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed extra pay for teachers whose students have the highest test-score gains, and higher salaries for teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

Virginia: Gov. Timothy M. Kaine advocates increasing the average teacher salary to the national average.

SOURCE: Education Week

As part of his comprehensive UpGrade Education Act, which Gov. Barbour is pursuing again this year after it failed to pass in 2005, the first-term Republican, who is up for re-election in 2007, wants Mississippi to supplement teacher salaries in schools whose students show the largest test-score gains each year, said Jason Dean, his education policy adviser. Educators in as many as 400 schools could be eligible for the performance pay, Mr. Dean said.

The plan builds on five years of significant teacher-pay raises in Mississippi, including an 8 percent raise this year that boosts salaries to an average of about $41,413—up from about $32,500, or 27 percent, since the 2000-01 school year.

Gov. Barbour’s proposal also would add additional pay each year for teachers who work in 47 isolated school districts or in the high-need academic subjects of mathematics, science, and foreign languages, and for special education teachers, Mr. Dean said. Teachers who work as mentors to less experienced teachers would also receive $1,000 in additional pay annually, he said.

In Alaska, another Republican up for re-election, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, has endorsed a pay-for-performance proposal that would give school employees bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $5,500, based on student improvement on tests. The payouts would be awarded not only to teachers, but also to many service-level employees throughout the school.

Bill Bjork, the president of the Alaska Education Association, an NEA affiliate, said the popularity of incentive-driven programs among some public officials is rooted in an overly simplistic view of what works in education. Success in improving student test scores is driven by many factors, not just a desire for larger paychecks, he said.

“We’ve got people in legislatures and government who are trying to apply private-sector models,” Mr. Bjork said. “They forget that kids aren’t widgets. Kids learn at different rates. Some kids are more expensive to teach than others.”

Gift Cards Welcome

While most proposals seek to increase teachers’ salaries or create bonuses, Gov. Perdue also offered some other twists in his plan.

He wants Georgia to cover the increases in teachers’ health-insurance premiums, a cost of $138 million in fiscal 2007.

That would be welcome news for teachers, said Ms. Chase Williams of the 40,000-member Georgia Educators Association.

Georgia teachers received a 2 percent raise this school year, though it didn’t take effect until this month. Many teachers complained, Ms. Chase Williams said, that their take-home pay actually declined because their increased contributions to health insurance were higher than their raises.

Mr. Perdue also proposed to give every teacher a $100 gift card to spend on classroom supplies for the 2006-07 school year. The cards would be valid during the state’s tax-free shopping days during the back-to-school season.

“That’s a nice gesture,” Ms. Chase Williams said, adding that the average teacher spends $600 of his or her own money for school supplies. “At least that takes care of some of the costs.”

Staff Writers Alan Richard and Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Politics Pulls Teacher Pay To Forefront


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