Teaching Profession

Lawmakers Plunge Into Teacher Pay

By Julie Blair — February 21, 2001 8 min read
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State leaders are casting the almighty dollar as the superhero strong enough to curb teacher shortages and attract new talent as they craft legislation that aims to increase teacher salaries.

At least 29 governors have set teacher pay hikes as a priority this year, an Education Week analysis and data from the National Education Association show. And legislators in 28 statehouses from Alabama to Washington have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at increasing pay, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

The proposals have tended to fall into three categories: across-the-board raises, performance-pay plans, and cash bonuses.

“The motivating force is clearly the teacher shortage,” said Michael B. Allen, the project manager for teacher quality at the Education Commission of the States, also in Denver. “People are worried that there are not enough teachers. They know they need some incentives to get people into teaching and to stay in teaching.

“To some extent,” he added, “it is about quality. A lot of people think that if you pay more money, you’ll get better people.”

As appealing as the prospect of raising teacher salaries is to many in the education community, some worry that the accountability measures tied to pay hikes won’t be fair to all educators, or will compromise good teaching practices.

Some in the field also say that paying teachers more money won’t solve other problems that plague the profession and make it unattractive to both young people and midcareer veterans.

“Raising salaries won’t be enough” to recruit and retain educators in the long term, argued Bob Chase, the president of the 2.6 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “In addition to that, we need to look at how we induct people into the profession,” he said, “and let them be a part of the decisionmaking process in schools. There are a lot of components to this, and we have to address all of them.”

Across-the-Board Popularity

Demand for K-12 educators has become fierce as the supply in some regions of the country and for some subjects and specialty areas continues to shrink.

Given retirements, the small number of college graduates who select the profession, and the high attrition rate for those who do, the U.S. Department of Education projects that school districts will need to hire at least 2 million teachers over the next decade.

Despite the great need, few, if any, of the proposals being floated in statehouses and governors’ offices would make teachers rich. Instead, the goal is to ensure that educators’ paychecks are comparable to those in other occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree, or, at least, fatter than those in neighboring states competing for school employees.

Across-the-board pay hikes remain the most popular proposals, said Bridget K. Curran, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors’ Association.

“While you are starting to see pay-for-performance systems and differentiated-pay systems, [lawmakers] are proceeding with caution,” Ms. Curran said, “because they’re not sure how effective they are.”

Many states are intent only on raising salaries to the national average of $41,950—as calculated by the American Federation of Teachers—or on keeping pace with inflation once they’ve hit that benchmark.

That’s especially true in Southern states, where teachers have long been paid below the national average, said Bracey Campbell, a spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit research and advisory organization in Atlanta.

Arkansas is one of the many states striving to meet the national average.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, is pushing a $3,000, across-the-board raise for K-12 educators within the next two years, a proposal that would cost $40.3 million in fiscal 2002 and $81.7 million the following year.

“First of all, we have one of the lowest salaries in the area,” said Rep. M. Olin Cook, the Democrat who chairs the education committee of the Arkansas House. “We’re finding that the surrounding states are giving signing bonuses and other kinds of [perquisites] to recruit teachers from Arkansas. We recognize [the governor’s proposal] is not a large increase, but we hope that it starts a trend that future general assemblies will follow up on.”

Three bills on teacher-salary increases are pending in Hawaii’s legislature, one of which would raise minimum pay to the national average. A second would increase minimum pay from $29,200 to $32,000 annually, while a third would provide teachers with salary advances within the first few weeks of employment.

Lawmakers in Mississippi are eager to meet the South’s average of $35,808, as reported by the SREB.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, has recommended scrapping a requirement that ties $23 million in salary increases approved last spring to a 5 percent increase in state revenue, said Lisa S. Mader, a spokeswoman for the governor. Mississippi teachers did not receive pay raises for the 2001 fiscal year because that goal was not reached.

“The governor believes that is an excuse not to pay teachers,” Ms. Mader said. “It is a matter of priorities.”

Ties to Performance

Several states are taking salary increases one step further by aligning them with teacher standards in a bid to increase accountability in the classroom.

Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Washington, for example, are all considering proposals that would pay educators based on their skills, knowledge, and performance rather than on the number of years they have worked in public schools.

Minnesota legislators see such initiatives as providing a good bang for the buck, said Rep. Tony Kielkucki, the vice chairman of the House committee on K-12 education finance. Several bills on teacher-salary increases are pending before the committee.

“A number of studies have shown that the greatest impact upon student achievement isn’t necessarily always curriculum or the test you use. What it boils down to is the individual teacher,” Mr. Kielkucki, a Republican, said. “We’re not sure how we’re going to do this, but we’re hoping to restructure the whole pay scale around performance indicators.”

Another teacher-pay strategy aims to promote recruitment and retention by awarding bonuses to those who teach in hard-to- staff schools, in urban and rural areas, or such subjects as math, science, and special education. Such policies are being debated in South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Utah Gov. Michael O. Levitt, a Republican, is recommending that his state pay educators one-time, $20,000 bonuses in exchange for their commitment to teach math and technology for four years, said Vernon C. Rowley, the governor’s deputy for education.

“The problem is not necessarily a shortage of teachers, but having them highly qualified in these particular areas,” Mr. Rowley said. “In order to keep the economy in the state flourishing, we’ve got to invest.”

A Waste of Money?

And yet, bigger paychecks alone aren’t likely to attract and keep teachers, some say. They contend that working conditions must also be improved to elevate the profession.

“If someone has a high salary, and you don’t give them the support, you’re going to waste your money,” said Jewell Gould, the research director for the 1 million-member AFT, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. “They need professional development, mentoring programs, and increased administrative support.”

About 50 percent of all new teachers in urban districts leave their jobs within the first five years, according to the NEA’s Mr. Chase. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of their colleagues teaching in rural or suburban communities quit within that time frame. Many do so because they are disappointed by low pay and the difficulties that come with a job that offers little professional support, he said.

One-time bonuses and other such incentives may attract some prospects initially, but those measures won’t work to retain staff members over the long haul, Mr. Chase added. Teachers will stay only if they are satisfied professionally—and that means districts must pay a decent wage throughout the salary schedule and improve the workplace, the union leader said.

“The fact is, people have to live,” Mr. Chase said. “You can’t go to the grocery store and pay for things with certificates of altruism.”

Many teachers say they approve of tying pay to performance in the classroom, but some worry that such plans won’t be accompanied by solid evaluation systems to gauge their work accurately. Moreover, teachers are concerned that evaluations conducted by school personnel would ultimately polarize the faculty.

Avoiding Divisiveness

Salaries based on teacher performance would be an improvement over the current system of evaluation, in which principals spend little time observing teachers, said James E. Dose, a high school mathematics teacher and coach at the 800-student Boone High School in Boone, Iowa. He argues, however, that a performance-pay system would be detrimental if evaluators judged educators solely on the work of students, such as test scores.

“We can only motivate students to a certain level,” Mr. Dose said. If student achievement is used as a meter of worth, he fears, educators will teach to standardized tests in an attempt to raise student scores and thus ensure their paychecks.

In addition, Mr. Dose suggested that evaluation teams be drawn from outside the district. Without such objective observations, “there would be divisiveness within the teaching staff,” he said.

State legislators are listening to such concerns as they scramble to address teacher pay, an issue which is relatively new to most of them.

Since the 1960s, districts in collective-bargaining states and some other districts as well have bartered with unions to set salary schedules.

But with the rise in states’ share of financial support for precollegiate education over the past decade or so, lawmakers also have begun prescribing accountability measures, said Eric Hirsch, a senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Now, those legislators are increasingly getting into the minutiae of paying specific groups of educators, a task of great complexity.

“A lot of states don’t have data as to how compensation will impact the shortage, but they know it is an important part of the equation,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Given what we know about markets, it is a common-sense solution.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Plunge Into Teacher Pay

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