Some Pa. teachers could still get a raise as part of this year’s budget negotiations

Pennsylvania State Education Association president Rich Askey rallied alongside fellow teachers in the Capitol last week as they called on the General Assembly to fund basic education increases and a a new minimum teacher salary in the state's 2019-2020 budget.

Despite its lukewarm reception from Republicans, Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to give thousands of Pennsylvania teachers a pay raise may still find a place in the budget legislation expected to reach his desk this week.

In his February budget address, Wolf called on the the Republican-controlled General Assembly to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum teacher salary to $45,000 a year, and to appropriate $14 million in the state’s 2019-20 budget to help districts, mostly in rural areas, cover the new expenses.

That money wasn’t included in the $34 billion spending plan that came out of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. But a spokesperson for a top House Republican told the Capital-Star that the proposal to raise teacher pay “is not dead.”

The policy change may be included in Pennsylvania’s school code instead, according to Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Pennsylvania’s myriad code bills, which govern everything from agriculture to education, don’t provide funding — they prescribe policy. Leaders in the House and Senate expect to send the budget-enabling bills to Wolf later this week.

The updated school code, which is still under negotiation, “could create a policy that impacts [teacher] pay based on experience, size of district,” and more, Straub said in an email Monday.

Since the policy change wouldn’t carry any earmarked funding, it’s unclear how lawmakers could avoid foisting an unfunded mandate on districts across the state. 

But Straub said “we’ll have to wait and see what kind of a policy/proposal they land on (if any) before we call it that for sure.”

A ‘fully funded mandate’ with many critics

State law requires Pennsylvania school districts to pay teachers at least $18,500 a year — a rate that hasn’t been updated in 30 years.

The average teacher in Pennsylvania earned $67,535 per year during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a PA Post analysis of Department of Education data. But some 3,200 teachers, mostly in rural districts and small cities, make less than $45,000 annually, according to the Department of Education.

In his February budget address, Wolf called for a one-time, $14 million allocation to bring the teacher pay floor to $45,000 per year. Of the 500 districts statewide, 180 would receive subsidies under Wolf’s plan to give raises to teachers currently making less than that. 

Wolf said the “fully funded mandate” would help schools attract and retain staff amid a nationwide teacher shortage. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 181,000 educators across the state, said the pay rate would bring Pennsylvania’s teachers in line with what other, similarly educated professionals earn. 

But the proposal to raise teacher pay has had no shortage of critics, including lawmakers from both parties and interest groups who said it would put pressure on local collective bargaining agreements and create unfunded expenditures in district budgets.

Republican lawmakers bristled at the proposal from the outset, saying that matters of teacher pay should be left to district administrators and their local bargaining units.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, told the Capital Star last week that his caucus hadn’t wavered on that position.

It was a wish from the governor, but it’s something we indicated very early on that we felt should be left to local school districts as part of their contract negotiations,” Corman’s spokesperson, Jennifer Kocher, said Monday.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) said that the proposal would have an “inevitable ripple effect” as districts renegotiate teacher contracts, which determine pay, benefits, and other employment conditions. 

PASBO argued that the new minimum pay rate would force districts to adjust long-standing salary schedules, which dictate teacher salary increases based on years of experience and the education they’ve obtained.

Hannah Barrick, PASBO’s advocacy director, also said that Wolf’s proposal failed to account for the increases it would generate in charter school tuition payments, which are already stressing public school budgets across the state

Under Pennsylvania’s school code, charter school tuition payments are calculated based on the average rate a district spends on each student it enrolls. PASBO warned that higher personnel costs would lead to a higher per-pupil spending rate.

Conemaugh Valley School District, for instance, which enrolls 773 students, stood to receive $693,259 from Wolf’s plan, Barrick said.

That salary subsidy would increase the district’s per-pupil spending rate by $900, Barrick said, leading to a proportional increase in the tuition it pays for each student who chooses to enroll in a privately run charter school.

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