Teacher pay raises are back in the news. The governor presented his plan to increase salaries for educators. BESE took a slightly different approach. And now, some lawmakers are wondering if everyone is asking for too much. That sets up another interesting discussion on an important topic when the legislative session kicks off next month.
When John Bel Edwards was first running for governor back in 2015, he said one of his goals was to raise teacher pay to the Southern regional average. There have been pay raises along the way, but reaching that goal has been elusive. This year the governor proposed a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and an extra $1,000 for school support workers. He also asked the Legislature to add another $1,000 for teachers if the Revenue Estimating Conference recognizes additional dollars are available to spend.
BESE has endorsed the first part of that proposal, but has suggested that if another $1,000 is added it should be in the form of “differential” pay. That means, it shouldn’t be an across-the board raise, but given as a supplement to reward highly-effective teachers or provide incentives for teachers in critical shortage areas.
The Southern average for teacher pay is just over $56,000. Louisiana’s average pay is a bit over $52,000. A $3,000 pay raise would appear to get Louisiana teachers close to the average, but the numbers are deceptive. Teacher pay across the region has not been static. While salaries have been slowly rising in Louisiana, they have been going up elsewhere, too.
Mississippi increased teacher pay by more than $5,000 last year. Alabama approved raises of at least 4% for all teachers, climbing to as much as 21% for those with the most experience. Those and other changes in the region are going to push the Southern average even higher.
So the question arises, what will the Legislature do? Last year the governor also proposed a $2,000 pay raise, but lawmakers reduced that to $1,500 citing concerns about whether revenues would be there in the future to fund the full amount. Legislative leaders are raising those same red flags heading into this year’s session.
Whatever happens, Louisiana leaders need to take the teacher pay issue seriously. In recent years, teacher shortages in the state have mounted. While the number of teachers rebounded a bit this past year, the latest numbers indicate there are still more than 1,200 vacant teaching positions across the state.
The findings of a legislative task force looking at teacher recruitment and retention suggests compensation is not the only reason for what has been a declining pool of teachers, but it is a significant one. In surveys teachers pointed to issues like stress, lack of recognition for what they do, and a sense that teaching is not treated as a real profession the way others are.
Much still needs to be done to interest more young people to become teachers, support new teachers in their early years in the classroom, and reduce paperwork and other burdens on educators. But there is no reason that teachers’ pay in Louisiana should be ranked 12th among the 16 Southern states. Particularly when we have so much to do to improve student outcomes and increase the number of students who are performing at the proficient level.
Higher pay doesn’t automatically solve that problem, of course. But it does send a message that education is a valued profession and worthy of reasonable compensation on par with peers in neighboring states. While some quibble with the idea that a portion of the pay should be targeted to reward great teachers and address specific areas of need, that is actually a part of elevating the teaching profession and CABL supports it.
Lawmakers are right to take a conservative approach to added spending, especially with a still uncertain economy and the reality that a temporary portion of the state sales tax is set to expire in a couple of years. But part of the job of being a leader is to set priorities.
Certainly, the fact that almost half of State General Fund revenues are targeted to some form of education speaks to the importance we place on that issue. But if one of our goals is to truly move the needle on improving student proficiency, we have to look at all the things that make a difference. Having highly-effective teachers who are certified in their subject areas and stay and grow in their profession is one of them.
We might get some of that because people are passionate about teaching and willing to become educators out of the goodness of their heart. But we can’t deny that compensation is a factor, and both the state and local school boards should do whatever they can to ensure that salaries are competitive and reflect the value we all place in the teaching profession.