Higher teacher salaries sound appealing, but can districts afford them long term?

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal contains a provision that’s hard to argue with, at least on the surface: higher salaries for teachers.

In his 2019-20 budget, Wolf provides nearly $14 million to bump up salaries in districts where teachers make less than $45,000 per year to start. According to state Department of Education records, 178 out of 499 public school districts in the commonwealth don’t meet that threshold.

The districts that would receive the largest chunks of funding are primarily rural. But there are urban school districts in the mix, too. Scranton’s school district would get $377,404, while Reading’s would receive $262,595.

Christopher Pegg is superintendent of the Albert Gallatin School District in rural Fayette County, which would get more than $500,000.

On Thursday, he was still waiting for more details on the proposal. But Pegg said “a higher starting salary would probably attract” more candidates to his area. Teachers have left in the past in favor of more urban settings, and he’s having a hard time recruiting people to teach math and chemistry.

“I’m certainly on board if the state wants to fund those higher salaries and help districts such as Albert Gallatin,” he said.

In his budget address, Wolf declared, “This is a fully funded mandate.”

“It’s an investment the state — not local school districts — will make, and it’s included in this budget,” he said.

On its own, Albert Gallatin wouldn’t be able to come up with $500,000 to support higher teacher salaries. About 75 percent of the district’s $54 million annual budget already comes from the state, Pegg said.

“Our tax revenue is not good, being in the setting we’re in,” he said.

The district is also dealing with what Pegg called an “unfunded mandate:” providing $1 million to cyber-charter schools.

“When they take one million from you to cover cyber education, it hurts,” Pegg said.

Conemaugh Valley School District Superintendent Shane Hazenstab has thoughts similar to Pegg’s. Under Wolf’s proposal, the rural Cambria County district would receive $693,259 — the highest amount.

In a statement, Hazenstab said the raises “would obviously impact teacher morale” and “likely would lessen our teacher turnover.”

But he also has a number of questions, like “Will we be able to sustain the increase?” and “How will we manage future years?”

“For every $1 that we raise salary, the cost to the district is $1.43,” Hazenstab said, because of retirement and tax costs. “Under the proposal, our new teachers would receive an increase of $17,000. The cost to the district would be $24,129.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said Wolf’s “proposal would provide funding this year and going forward.” That means dollars for this purpose would be built into the department’s base funding in future years.

What the future holds

Ryan Aument, the Lancaster County Republican who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, is also concerned about cost.

Aument said he and other lawmakers are still trying to understand the true cost of the salary increases, since higher starting salaries could put upward pressure on teacher pay in general.

“If you are raising the floor, it is fair to assume it will raise all the teacher salaries … and those costs will be borne by districts,” he said.

When the Senate Appropriations Committee holds its first budget hearings later this month, Aument said lawmakers will be able to determine if Wolf’s proposal fully accounts for all of its direct and indirect costs.

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s statewide teachers’ union said that any indirect costs could take years to materialize.

Chris Lilienthal of the Pennsylvania State Education Association pointed out that Wolf’s mandate would only have an immediate effect on the teachers earning less than $45,000 per year.

But as collective bargaining agreements expire, and unions start to negotiate new salary structures with a higher base pay, it’s possible that districts affected by Wolf’s mandate will see salaries rise across the board.

“We anticipate this will be an issue, but that will be a local bargaining and contract discussion,” Lilienthal said. “[This minimum salary] brings teachers much more closely to what other similarly educated professionals are earning in Pennsylvania.”

Raising salaries would also send an important symbolic message to current and aspiring teachers, Lilienthal said: “Teachers are the ones that make all the other careers possible, so we should be respect and honor that importance.”

While Aument and Lilienthal agree that it’s important for educators to be fairly compensated, they also acknowledge that salaries alone can’t reverse the state’s years-long teacher shortage.

The number of undergraduate education majors in Pennsylvania has declined 55 percent since 1996, according to a 2017 release from Wolf’s office. The number of state teaching permits issued has also fallen by 71 percent since 2009.

Lilienthal said that Pennsylvania’s population of school-age children has remained relatively stable over the same time period.

Factors like workplace conditions, professional leadership, and opportunities for professional development all impact a teacher’s job satisfaction, Lilienthal said.

He added that Wolf administration initiatives to encourage workplace mentorship and increase school safety could bolster teacher recruitment and retention across the state.

Aument also said that modernizing the state’s evaluation process for teachers could help boost morale and regenerate interest in a profession that increasingly emphasizes standardized testing.

Last week, Aument circulated a co-sponsorship memo announcing his intent to reform Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation process.

Under the current law, which was adopted in 2012, classroom observations and student performance (in other words, standardized test scores) are given equal weight in a teacher’s performance evaluations.

Under Aument’s proposal, 70 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on classroom observations, and 30 percent would be based on her students’ performance.

“This will allow our educators to be more creative and innovative,” Aument said. “The pressure that standardized assessments has placed on schools and educators … [can be] an inhibiting force in the classroom.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.