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Missouri should raise teacher salaries to 'at least $38,000' to fix shortage, commission says

A woman (a teacher) wearing a surgical mask holds a children's book so kids seated in the foreground can see the pictures on the pages. One child on the left is raising his hand.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Missouri state law sets the base salary for a beginning teacher at $25,000, the second-lowest in the nation. A Blue Ribbon Commission on teacher recruitment and retention found that raising salaries would cost the state around $29.5 million.

A state commission Tuesday laid out its recommendations to improve teacher recruitment and retention in Missouri, including a push to raise starting salaries that currently rank among the lowest in the nation.

The State Board of Education approved the commission’s nine recommendations and pledged to bring the findings to the public and lawmakers.

“I look forward to taking this out and sharing it with Missouri citizens and, ultimately, with the legislature and our legislative partners,” said Charlie Shields, president of the state board of education.

Nearly 8% of available full-time teaching positions in the school year 2020-2021 were vacant or filled by not fully qualified individuals, according to the report. Shortages have particularly afflicted elementary, early childhood and special education, the report noted, as well as specific subjects and high-need schools.

The Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission was formed by the State Board of Education earlier this year and is composed of 22 members, including nine business members, four state legislators and two teachers, as well as staff from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, governor’s office, State Board of Education, and School Board.

One of the commission’s immediate recommendations was for the legislature to amend the state’s base teacher salary, which is currently set by state law at $25,000 for a beginning teacher, to “at least $38,000” and to conduct annual reviews of the starting salary level.

According to the National Education Association’s review from earlier this year, Missouri’s average teacher starting salary ranks second-to-last in the nation, at $33,234, higher only than Montana. At a public hearing in August, educators recounted taking on second jobs to get by.

“We cannot fall behind again like we have and play catch up,” Mark Walker, CEO of the transportation company TransLand and chair of the commission, said as he presented the report Tuesday morning.

According to the report, it would cost the state around $29.5 million to ensure all teachers were making at least $38,000 a year.

The commission also recommended the legislature fund a program which allows districts to supplement teacher salaries for hours worked outside contracted hours, called the Career Ladder program, and expand grants to fund teacher recruitment programs.

The legislature should also establish a state fund to help local school districts pay more competitive salaries overall, the report recommended.

The average teachers salary in Missouri ranks 47th in the nation, at $51,557, according to the National Education Association.

Pay varies widely by district. In smaller districts, with fewer than 250 students, teachers are paid an average of $9,000 less than their counterparts in larger districts, the report said.

To bump up the average teacher salary by just $1,000 would cost the state $81.2 million, according to the report.

“We recognize you can’t do it immediately,” said Walker, of creating a state fund to raise salaries across the board, “But we certainly think this probably has one of the largest impacts we could ask to have in the system.”

Other short-term priorities in the report include increasing support for teacher mental health and funding a student loan forgiveness program to incentivize teachers to work in at-risk schools.

In the long-term, the commission recommends the state allow schools to provide salary supplements and bonuses to fill high-need positions, which would require several provisions of the Missouri Constitution to be modified, and recommends the legislature help fund teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which studies have linked to teachers’ effectiveness and retention.

The commission recommends future work be done to assess school cultures and climate for teachers, as well as Missouri’s heavy reliance on local funding for education, which “creates inequities in the available resources and supports available to schools, teachers, and students.”

One board member, Pamela Westbrooks-Hodgeweighed in on the point of inequitable funding, praising the commission’s efforts as a first step but pointing to funding as the “big white elephant in this room” that needed to be further addressed.

Without focusing on structural funding issues, “if we try to apply Band-Aids,” Westbrooks-Hodge said, “we’re going to be sitting here 10 years from now talking about the same issue.”

“You’ve issued a charge,” she said to the commission, “but what you’ve listed as a next step or consideration really needs to be our first step. We’ve got to attack the structure.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and is a Report for America corps member.
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