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Missouri's teachers are among the nation's worst-paid. Some districts are getting creative to fix that

Students inside an elementary school classroom sit with their back to the camera. A teacher sits at the head of the class talking to them.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
School districts in Missouri are struggling to find staff as teachers cope with low pay.

Missouri ranks near the bottom of the country for its teacher pay. Faced with staffing shortages, school districts and education leaders are doing what they can to raise salaries.

Missouri pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation, which makes it hard for school districts across the state to keep and attract educators.

The average starting salary for Missouri’s teachers is just above $33,200. According to the National Education Association, only Montana pays new teachers less. The state’s average teacher salary also ranks 47th in the country, at $51,557.

The Kansas City-area Hickman Mills School District, which pays some of the lowest salaries in the region, voted in November to boost teacher pay. First-year teachers in the district currently make a minimum of $38,000. With the pay bump, new teachers will make a minimum of $46,500 and a maximum of $95,107 starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

The raise, paid for by a tax levy approved in August, will make the district one of the highest paying in the area.

“(Our pay was) so low and it affected our retention and it affected really making Hickman Mills your first choice to make a career,” said DaRon McGee, president of the district’s school board. “I think this step clearly shows that we want people to make a career here.”

What's next for teacher pay?

A commission formed by the Missouri State Board of Education to find solutions to the state’s struggle with teacher recruitment and retention also recommended raising salaries. The commission noted that nearly 8% of its available full-time teaching positions in the 2020-21 school year were either vacant or filled by individuals who were not fully qualified.

Missouri House Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City who served as a member of the commission, said low pay is one of the main issues driving teachers out.

“It's not hard to understand why teachers might jump over to another state — still live in the state of Missouri, but jump over to teach in another state because they have a better benefit and salary package,” Burnett said.

The commission’s final recommendations included amending the state’s minimum teacher salary to at least $38,000 and requiring annual reviews to ensure pay remains competitive. The base salary for Missouri teachers is currently set by state law at $25,000.

The state is currently making up the difference through a grant program passed by the state legislature in May that increases starting salaries to $38,000 for participating school districts.

However, the program only funds 70% of the cost of the raise — districts pay the remaining 30%. The grants will run out at the end of next year, which will require the legislature to appropriate funding for fiscal year 2024 in order to continue.

Another barrier, Burnett said, is the rising costs of tuition and teacher certification.

“They're paying a tremendous amount for degrees that require more education than their counterparts, who are going off into other segments of the workforce, earning more money with more opportunity for advancement,” Burnett said.

The commission also recommended more support for districts that implement “Grow Your Own Programs” to recruit new teachers from within their communities, and additional pay for teachers in high-need positions or schools.

Burnett said the commission also recommends the state board look further into how to improve school climate and culture. The Government Accountability Office released a report in October that found a growing negative perception of teachers eclipsed low salaries as the reason for educators leaving the field.

As legislators gear up to return to Jefferson City in the new year, some bills to raise teacher pay are already in the works. Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Clay County who also served on the commission, filed a bill that would raise the minimum teacher's salary from $25,000 to $38,000.

However, Burnett said raising teacher pay and other recommendations from the commission aren’t a priority for the state legislature’s leadership.

“Oftentimes, there's more political advantage to being critical of the public schools than there is to supporting them,” Burnett said. “I hope my colleagues will continue to keep open-minded and take this seriously.”

Rise of the four day school week

Other school districts in the state are looking beyond pay as they face chronic teacher and staffing shortages.

The Independence School District will start a four-day school week beginning next school year in the hopes that it will attract more teachers. With nearly 14,000 students, Independence is the largest district in Missouri to make the move. The next-largest is the Warren County School District west of St. Louis, with more than 3,000 students.

Following the decision in Independence, the St. Joseph School District is now exploring a four-day school week, according to The Kansas City Star. The school district has more than 10,000 students.

These moves follow a trend of other Missouri schools — most of them small and rural — adopting a shorter schedule. At the start of the school year, 25% of the state’s school districts had a four-day week.

Other local school districts are reducing barriers for new teachers.

The North Kansas City School District will begin paying its student teachers beginning in spring 2023. Student teachers, who are usually unpaid, will receive a $2,500 stipend per semester if they teach in the district.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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