State teacher shortages blamed on stagnant pay

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

The Juneau School Board soon will consider a balanced budget for next school year that cuts the number of teachers by 15, mostly because of fewer students, and modestly increases the funds for supplies and computer maintenance.

But the budget doesn't account for any raises for Juneau's 366 teachers, who have begun negotiating the contract that would start next school year.

Juneau teachers earn $31,418 to $61,268 a year. They are coming off a two-year contract in which most of them moved up the salary schedule, which rewards teachers for added experience and schooling. But the schedule has smaller pay gains in the yearly steps than under a prior schedule that applied to teachers hired before May 1996.

If teachers' pay goes up next year, it would mean "fewer people doing more work," said Superintendent Gary Bader, unless the Legislature passes one of several bills that would increase state funding.

The wages on the Juneau teachers' salary schedule haven't risen since fall of 1994. In some years since then, teachers haven't been allowed to move up the schedule. Over the long haul, it's very demoralizing for employees, Bader said. Juneau is "a nice place and people like living here, but you can't eat an evergreen."

A special education teacher who makes about $36,000 said she plans to leave Juneau because she'd earn more and have fewer students and more aides elsewhere. She asked not to be named.

"It's frustrating because when you look at the money you're making and the work load you have to do and the lack of support from the district and the administration, it's not worth it," she said.

Money isn't the only factor that attracts teachers to Juneau, said Clay Good, one of the Juneau Education Association's negotiators. Teachers also are drawn by the community and its support for education.

"But as soon as folks get here, they've got to live here," Good said. "The cost of living in Juneau is pretty high compared with lots of places. So having a static or eroding salary scale doesn't make it easier to attract teachers to Juneau."

The average teacher salary in a school district, which is about $48,800 in Juneau, reflects teachers' years of experience and experience and college credits. The base salary is a better indication of a district's competitiveness for new hires.

Juneau's base is among the lowest in the state, according to a survey by the Association of Alaska School Boards. It's lower than in Anchorage, Kenai, Kodiak or Fairbanks by $500 to $1,500, and lower than in many places in the Bush by about $4,000.

A married couple who work one and a half teaching jobs in Juneau are thinking of moving elsewhere because they can't sustain the monthly losses of spending more than they earn, they said.

They both have master's degrees and a few years' experience as teachers. They have two children, and a mortgage and college loans to pay off, and one works full-time in the summer.

"We live extremely frugally. My wife and I have more output each month than income. And we live what I consider very reasonable lifestyles," the husband said, asking not to be named. "Our only goal is to be able to afford to live reasonably in whatever community we live in and be able to save reasonably for our kids and keep up with the cost of living."

The school district faces pressure to give teachers raises in order to recruit and retain them during a nationwide shortage. Most Alaska teachers aren't hired from in state - only 17 percent of last year's new hires attended the University of Alaska - and Alaska's high cost of living affects where recent college graduates choose to teach.

Alaska's average teacher salary was fifth in the nation in the fall of 1997, according to the American Federation of Teachers, a union. But considering state differences in cost of living, Alaska ranked 20th.

Alaska's average teachers' salary and average beginners' salary both dropped about 10 percent in the 1990s in constant dollars, which account for inflation, according to the union. Those are the largest declines among the states, most of which showed small gains or small losses.

"That's definitely sending a message to teachers," said Melissa Hill, program director of Alaska Teacher Placement, a clearinghouse for school districts.

Alaska's average salary has declined in actual dollars for about five years, partly because several years of retirement incentives replaced experienced, higher-paid teachers with young, lower-paid teachers. Some school districts, including Juneau, also negotiated lower salary schedules for new hires, and in some years didn't let teachers move up the schedule.

Alaska school administrators say it's becoming harder to find teachers in some subjects such as science and math and in special education. The number of teachers who attended a statewide job fair in Anchorage last year was less than half that of three years earlier. About 85 teaching jobs were unfilled at the start of this school year.

Ten years ago at teachers' job fairs in Alaska, prospective teachers followed superintendents around and peddled their resumes, Hill said.

"Now we have superintendents following registrants into the restrooms and asking for resumes. The roles are reversed," she said.

A statewide task force of business, school and municipal officials has recommended spending $141 million in state funds over the next five years to increase teachers' salaries and about $12 million to pay new teachers' college loans as a hiring incentive. The panel also asked the state to consider improving teachers' retirement benefits. Gov. Tony Knowles, several Republican lawmakers and one Democrat are proposing bills to increase state spending on schools.

Without paying teachers more, "you will find you get what you pay for, and it may not be enough," said Carl Rose, task force member and head of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

Other ideas

Instead of offering hiring bonuses or across-the-board raises, schools should pay good teachers more, and pay more for teachers in subjects that have shortages, say observers who want to put more free-market incentives into education.

To get good teachers, schools should evaluate teachers on their students' gains in academic achievement and make that a factor in hiring, firing and what to pay individual teachers, said Eric Hanushek, an education researcher at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. If schools hire and retain teachers in the same old way, they won't get any different results, he said.

Mary Kayne Heinze, spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said: "By tying a teacher's salary to the work they do and their success, or lack thereof, in the classroom a good teacher has incentive to do better and an OK or weak teacher will work harder, try different things in the classroom, all with the idea of finding ways to reach children."

The jury is still out on a multi-year test of a pay-for-performance system among some Denver public schools. If a full-fledged program is implemented districtwide, the only raises would go to teachers whose students have gained in achievement. How to measure that gain is partly the subject of the pilot program.

But the Denver school district, concerned that merit pay would make it harder to hire and keep teachers, raised its base pay to be the highest in the state. It won't save the district money if many teachers earn raises and if it spends more on teacher training and maintaining a database of student achievement.

Some free-market proponents also advocate for easier ways to certify teachers. It would add to the labor pool and increase the quality of teachers by bringing in well-educated people from other fields, they say.

"The country has a whole lot of people who indicate they would consider teaching if it weren't so bloody difficult to get into the field," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The University of Alaska is phasing out its bachelor degree programs in education, so that teachers will get a degree in an academic subject, but it now requires an intensive one-year master's degree and internship for people who want to be teachers.

The master's program has attracted people from other fields, but requiring a fifth year of college also has driven would-be teachers out of state, said Roger Norris-Tull, dean of the School of Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The undergraduate education program at UAF typically had 100 applicants a year, but the master's program now has about 20.

"I have seen a lot more people saying simply, 'This is ridiculous,' " he said. " 'If Alaska says you have to go five years and all the other states in the union say four years, then I'm going to go somewhere else.' "

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, has filed a bill that would allow school districts to avoid the usual certification requirements for teachers. They could hire people who have at least a bachelor's degree with a major in the subject they would teach, and have worked at least five years in that subject. They would be limited to teaching only in their field of expertise.

It's a popular idea, but it doesn't work, Norris-Tull said. The new teachers discover they don't know how to keep order or teach children with learning disabilities or emotional disturbances or who have a variety of learning styles, he said.

"The success rate of those teachers is incredibly small," Norris-Tull said.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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