State's education department wants to use Missouri's $6B surplus to raise teacher pay

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The state’s education department estimates there are more than 3,000 positions in Missouri schools this year that have either been left vacant or filled by someone not qualified. 

Following a teacher shortage crisis, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is requesting the General Assembly to use the state’s billion-dollar surplus to give educators a raise. 

“Teachers do not work for the money, but they have to have a sustainable wage,” DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said. “No other industry would be satisfied if 50% of the profession was leaving within the first five years.”

Under current state law, the minimum wage for teachers is $25,000, a statute that hasn’t been changed in years. Missouri has the lowest start teacher pay in the country. The department says roughly 8,000 teachers make less than $35,000. In the budget request to the governor, DESE is asking the General Assembly to change state law. 

“Right now, when we’re talking about a $38,000 salary for our teachers, that is just to make us somewhat competitive with our neighboring states,” Vandeven said. 

In July, the governor approved nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to increase minimum teacher pay from $25,000 to $38,000. Under the legislation, the state pays for 70% while the rest is on the district, which means schools have to opt into the program, but the funding from the state is only for one year. DESE Deputy Commissioner Kari Monsees said about 350 schools are participating in the program. 

This year, lawmakers also fully funded school transportation for the first time since the 1990s, but because of inflation, to fully fund it again, it would cost $18 million. 

“That allows schools districts to not have to utilize those local resources to support those additional services like transportation,” Monsees said. “As you can imagine with fuel cost being what it’s been, there’s also been increased cost for buses and parts. We also have driver staffing issues so the salaries for drivers and the things schools have to offer just to have enough drivers has gone up significantly.”

Monsees said the department is having to ask for more money in other areas too. 

“Within all of our school food programs that we offer across the state, costs have gone up just like it has for all our consumers in our state and across the country,” Monsees said. 

Back in October, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission released its report after months of research to find out what could be done to combat the teacher shortage. 

The commission’s recommendation is to keep it permanent. In total, the commission offered nine recommendations to the board, separated into three categories: immediate, short-term, and long-term. At least half addressed teacher pay.

Immediate priorities: 

  • Increasing starting teacher pay to $38,000 and have an annual review from the Joint Committee on Education to ensure teacher salaries remain competitive 
  • Fund the Career Ladder Program which rewards teachers for extracurricular activities
  • Establish sustainable funding for Grow Your Own programs, geared towards paraprofessionals, adults or high school students who want to become a teacher
  • Encourage districts to implement team-based teaching models 

Short-term priorities: 

  • Establish a fund to help local school districts pay for the increased minimum starting salary and to increase teacher pay overall
  • Increase support for educator mental health
  • Fully fund the scholarship program that offers tuition assistance to incoming teachers or to educators continuing their education 

Long-term priorities:

  • Offer salary supplements for filling high-need positions
  • Fund salary supplements for teachers with National Board Certification 

The commission also recommends that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) expand the annual teacher recruitment and retention report to include salary data for each local school district, teacher turnover broken down by student achievement and by race, a comparison of Missouri’s starting and average salaries with surrounding states, and openings that have been posted over the past year and the number of applications each opening received. 

The state currently has a surplus of $6 billion. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they plan to make education a priority this upcoming legislative session, Vandeven hopes they follow through. 

“You have an opportunity to create impact, to create sustainable long-lasting change for this state, I can’t think of a better place to invest that in than our children,” Vandeven said. 

Also, in the budget request for next year, more funding for charter schools following a new law passed earlier this year. It’s the biggest new item in the budget at $77 million. Due to a lack of teachers, more than 140 school districts across the state have had to implement four-day weeks. Increasing the minimum starting teacher salary comes with a hefty price tag. According to the report, about 8,000 teachers make below $38,000. In order to increase their wages, it’s estimated to cost $29.5 million, which does not address the salary schedule compression issues that might be included. 

Another part of the budget request sent to the governor includes funding for the Career Ladder Program, which rewards teachers for extra work like extracurricular activities or tutoring. The state statue has also been modified to lower the years of service needed to participate in the program from five years to two. Monsees says the department is going to pay each district more for the program. With the increase in funding and the additional 10,000 teachers now eligible, the program cost is $31.8 million. While the not all the priorities from the commission are requested in next year’s budget, Vandeven said they will be in the future. 

“Those are just the very, very early steps in things that we want to address,” Vandeven said. “The other issues like mental health and overall working conditions and board certification, those are long term.”Back in June, the State Board of Education voted to expand testing scores in hopes of getting more teachers certified. By tweaking the state’s qualifying score, more than 500 teachers could be added to the workforce. 

According to DESE, roughly 550 teachers miss the qualifying score on the certification exam anywhere between one to four questions. Those candidates have already completed their accredited program but didn’t score high enough on the exam.

Back in April, the board approved expanding the test scores for elementary certification exams by a -2 standard error of measurement (SEM) after a new assessment was implemented in August and enough educators weren’t scoring high enough.

In June, the board agreed to change the qualifying score to -1 SEM starting immediately. This means someone that missing a handful of questions would be certified.

Teachers aren’t the only ones leaving the education field. During the 2021-2022 school year, the state faced one of the largest numbers of openings for superintendents in recent history. Of the state’s 518 school districts, 104 of them spent the summer searching for superintendents. More than 53% of those openings are due to retirements from the last school year.

According to the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA), 56 superintendents retired this past school year, that number is up from 43 in 2021, 41 in 2020, and 36 in 2019. Compared to years past, in 2019 there were 76 superintendent openings going into the school year. By 2020, when most districts finished the school year virtually, that number increased to 86 but decreased back down to 83 in 2021. 

On Jan. 4, lawmakers will reconvene at the Capitol. 

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