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‘Career ladder’ gains traction to address teacher pay

by Anna Campbell | April 5, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

JEFFERSON CITY -- Plans for Missouri teacher pay took a turn last week after the House Budget Committee removed the governor's recommended teacher pay raise and redirected the funding to a program the state hasn't funded for more than a decade.

Gov. Mike Parson's plan to raise teacher pay would have brought minimum teacher pay, currently set at $25,000 according to Missouri statute, up to $38,000 through a voluntary grant program. Districts that elected to participate could bring up the salaries of all teachers paid below the $38,000 threshold with supplementary funds. The state would supply 70 percent of those funds, with the local school district responsible for paying the rest.

While the effort to raise teacher pay was widely lauded on both sides of the aisle, many legislators and school administrators worried the strategy might not be the most effective way to raise teacher pay.

Superintendents of smaller local school districts were distressed about the percentage they were expected to pay into the plan.

Superintendent Charley Burch, of Eugene, has said 60 percent of the staff made less than $38,000 and starting teacher pay was just north of $30,000, making it "pretty difficult on our budget to make that work."

Superintendent Perry Gorrell, of Russellville, has said he was concerned veteran teachers could be left in the lurch. The plan accounts only for those making less than $38,000, meaning teachers with more experience who make just more than that amount might not see an increase or might be making just a little more than a brand new teacher.

Burch said he could see the plan creating wage compression. Representatives have echoed that concern.

On March 28, the committee removed the governor's recommended teacher pay plan from the budget.

"I've had some mixed feedback from the education community on this, and this is, I think it's important to think of this as a departure from the way that we pay teachers now," Budget Chair Cody Smith said. "We defer to local control when it comes to teacher salaries now, we send them dollars for transportation, dollars for foundation formula, we kind of let them dictate how much they pay teachers."

Smith said he wasn't certain the plan could be carried out in perpetuity.

"My concerns here are that this is an annual appropriation ... so if we start down this course it will be up to the General Assembly every year to renew that or continue to do that," he said.

That means if the General Assembly failed to appropriate the money in the future, schools could be left without state support.

Smith said he also worried about wage compression between starting teachers and tenured teachers.

"I will say now and say often as we talk about this that I do think we need to do something about teacher pay in Missouri. That's clear. I'm not sure that this is the best approach that I've heard," Smith said.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said an increase in teacher pay was necessary, since Missouri was surrounded by other states that could offer higher pay and pull teachers across the border.

On Thursday, the budget committee again talked about teacher pay again in the markup process.

Nurrenbern filed an amendment to the budget that would take the amount the governor intended for his teacher pay raise plan -- nearly $22 million in lottery proceeds -- and shift it into a program "we know works."

That program is "Career Ladder," a voluntary program that allows school districts to pay teachers extra if they participate in additional activities outside of their normal duties. To be eligible under the program, teachers had to have five years of experience under their belt and could advance to different levels for higher compensation if they continued in the program.

At the highest level, a teacher could make $5,000 more than their regular salary.

The program began decades ago, but state funding stopped after budget cuts following economic recession more than 10 years ago, Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe said in a hearing.

Black is sponsoring House Bill 2493, which would alter the career ladder program.

Under Black's changes, teachers could be paid for externships, coaching, supervising extracurricular activities, mentoring and tutoring, extra teacher training, or helping students with college or career preparation. The bill would also change state funding; the state would provide 60 percent of the funding for the program, instead of the previous 40. It also lowers the number of years of experience before a teacher is eligible from five to two.

Nurrenbern said in an interview she'd like to see Black's bill progress as well, and she approves of the state contributing a greater share of that match.

Nurrenbern said she was worried when the teacher pay plan was cut altogether without an alternative being on the table, so she began asking Republican legislators on the committee what kind of program they could get behind.

"Ultimately, one of the programs that has tremendous bipartisan support and support throughout the state is career ladder," Nurrenbern said, calling the program a "compromise solution."

Nurrenbern said she's been encouraged by comments from legislators about supporting teachers, but she said she's frustrated by the amount of talk versus action. She'd like to see more funding commitment from the state in education and greater support for school staff as well as teachers.

Although the state has not funded the program in recent years, school districts across the state have still used the program by providing their portion of the funding, Nurrenbern said.

Nurrenbern said many of the schools that participate in career ladder are smaller districts, so she hopes the plan could be more accessible and affordable for them.

"Quite frankly, I see career ladder as teachers getting paid for the things that they already do outside of the school day," she said.

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