Push for Teacher Pay Maintains a Foothold in States

By Daarel Burnette II & Madeline Will — February 25, 2020 7 min read
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In the wake of roiling protests and painful teacher shortages in key areas, at least 13 governors so far this year have proposed raising teachers’ pay, according to an Education Week analysis of State of the State addresses.

The ambitious pay proposals, if passed, will impact some of the poorest and most rural regions of the country where droves of teachers have either crossed state lines for better-paying jobs or left the profession altogether. (Nine governors have not yet given, or will not give, a State of the State address this year.)

Governors have asked their legislatures to consider pouring millions more state dollars into K-12 coffers in the coming fiscal year in order to bump the state’s minimum salary for starting teachers by thousands more dollars, give across-the-board pay increases, or roll out pay-for-performance initiatives.

“We cannot simply rely on the good hearts of teachers any longer to retain an effective teaching workforce in Idaho,” said Gov. Brad Little, a Republican who is proposing a five-year, $225 million plan to increase teacher pay throughout the career ladder, with an emphasis on veteran teachers.

Interactive: These Governors Are Calling for Teacher Pay Raises

After years of stagnant wages, and a growing tide of activism that has taken root across the country, politicians and K-12 funding advocates have been at odds over the dynamics of the proposals and which teachers in the end would get a pay increase. Several governors, including those of Arizona and Florida, have lashed out at district superintendents for spending new money intended for teachers’ salaries on other priorities.

While teacher activists say they’re glad to see pay raises on the table this legislative session, some say their governors’ proposals don’t go far enough and that future large-scale protests are still a possibility.

“It really shows a dedication [from the governor] to help retain teachers—one of the biggest ways to retain teachers is to pay them a competitive wage,” Lisa Ellis, a high school journalism teacher in Blythewood, S.C., and the founder of the grassroots teachers’ group, SCforED, said of Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposal to give teachers a $3,000 across-the-board raise.

Still, she added, “it’s not quite what we’re asking for.”

Varied Approaches

Ellis said teachers would rather have an across-the-board 5 percent raise. But significantly bumping the salaries of tens of thousands of teachers can be expensive and both technically and politically complicated, since district superintendents, not governors, mostly control teachers’ pay.

While states have more money to work with this year because of surging income and sales tax revenue, school funding advocates have to compete with growing Medicaid and higher education costs. In addition, some legislators have argued that their state has done its part and if superintendents think teachers should be paid more, they should use local tax dollars in order to pay for it.

Governors in Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico, and Virginia are proposing percentage increases for the entire teaching force. In Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina, governors are proposing to raise teachers’ pay by a set dollar amount. Governors in Indiana and Tennessee said they want to add more money to the overall pot so districts can increase pay during their own salary negotiations.

And some governors, including in Florida, Idaho, and Pennsylvania, are trying to increase the state’s minimum pay amounts.

“We’ve figured out how to give tax incentives to corporations,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a newly elected Democrat who’s proposing a $2,000 teacher raise, “so I know we can figure out how to pay a living wage to the men and women who get up at the crack of dawn every morning to go open their classrooms, stay up late grading papers, and give everything they can so our Kentucky children have every opportunity.”

Growing Tide of Activism

Ever since the entire teaching force in West Virginia successfully went on strike in 2018 to gain higher wages, the nation’s stagnant teacher pay has gained outsized attention. In at least 10 states in two years, teachers have staged multi- or single-day walkouts and protests, shuttering hundreds of schools.

More than a fifth of governors unveiled teacher pay proposals last year, which resulted in teachers getting raises in more than 15 states, an Education Week analysis found.

That activism has not abated. In some states, it’s intensified. Many teacher activists, dissatisfied with governors’ proposals or lack thereof, say they will ramp up their pressure this legislative session.

“We’re going to go to the capitol every day to let legislators know teachers are financially struggling, and they need support,” Keith Courville, the executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, told the Associated Press.

K-12 advocates there have accused Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of reneging on a campaign promise when he failed to include in his budget a proposal to raise teacher pay.

Teachers, Courville said, “are furious.” (For his part, Edwards said the state would give teachers a raise “when we can.”)

Governors are also responding to increasing pressure from the business community, which has been frustrated with stagnant and, in some instances, dipping test scores, which many researchers are now directly attributing to low state spending on teacher pay. In Florida, a large coalition of business and civic leaders wrote in a widely distributed editorial before the start of this legislative season that it was past time the state pay teachers “enough to want to enter and stay in the classroom.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis then dedicated a large swath of his State of the State address to praising teachers, two of whom were featured guests at the capitol, and proposed to spend $600 million to increase the minimum pay from $37,636 to $47,500.

DeSantis has also proposed a new $300 million performance-based bonus program for teachers and principals, which would give teachers who work in Title I schools bonuses of up to $7,500. The bonuses are based, at least partially, on gains that schools make in the state’s A-F school grading calculation, which is determined by student test scores.

Teacher Groups Frustrated

But Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association, called DeSantis’ proposal a “divide and conquer” tactic that pits teachers against each other. The FEA has instead proposed a 10 percent pay raise for every public school employee.

Raising the minimum pay won’t help with retention, Ingram said, and teachers don’t like the proposed bonus structure plan.

“If students do X, then teachers get Y—that’s not an equation that teachers want to hear,” he said. “There are so many variables around testing that teachers don’t control.”

Thousands of Florida teachers and other supporters rallied at the state capitol last month to call for higher pay and more school funding. So far, the FEA has not planned another mass protest, but Ingram said “nothing is off the table.”

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has committed to raising teacher pay—but it will have to wait until 2021. He urged lawmakers in his State of the State speech to take $250 million from the state surplus and put it toward the teacher pension fund, which in turn would free up $50 million a year for teacher raises.

That’s on top of an additional $65 million a year that was set aside for teacher pay increases last year. But Holcomb is waiting for his appointed teacher pay commission to release recommendations on raises.

South Carolina teachers, for instance, got a 4 percent across-the-board salary increase last year. Teachers with fewer than five years of experience received an up to 10 percent raise, in an attempt to keep more beginning teachers in the classroom.

This year, teachers were hoping for an additional 5 percent across-the-board raise, instead of the proposed $3,000 across-the-board raise. Ellis, of SCforED, said a nonpercentage raise sends the message that “you’re not recognizing the value of your veteran teachers.”

According to The State newspaper, McMaster, a Republican, said state leaders chose a flat amount instead of a percentage raise because it would have a “greater impact inside the classrooms.” He also said a flat dollar raise is “easy to understand,” according to the Post and Courier.

Last May, hundreds of educators took personal days to protest at the state capitol, calling for higher pay, more school funding, and better working conditions.

Another raise is “one of those very small steps in the right direction, but there’s still a lot that has to change as far as working conditions in South Carolina,” Ellis said.

She said SCforED is “really trying to prevent [another protest] from happening” this year, but activists have set a March 17 deadline for legislators to meet teachers’ demands.

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teacher Pay Push Maintains Foothold in States


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