SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — First-grade teacher Hillary Madrigal jumped to a nearby school district last year, lured by higher salaries that would allow her to quit her second job as a housekeeper and buy a new car.
"I have a college degree. I felt I could make a difference in people's lives as a teacher, but to pay my bills I had to do people's laundry," said Madrigal, who now works for the Salt Lake City School District.
Across the U.S., teachers and school districts alike are grappling with the latest political and economic realities of educator pay. The dynamics have been complicated by both the recent national teacher protest movement that's emboldened the workforce to demand higher salaries and better conditions, and the steadily brewing shortage of educators that's forced many school districts to confront the money issue with more urgency.
The National Education Association's latest salary data estimates the average public school teacher in the U.S. saw a 2 percent pay raise over the past two years since the national Red4Ed protest movement spread across the U.S.
At the same time, the number of teacher vacancies have exceeded 100,000 jobs in the past four years, said Elaine Weiss of the Economic Policy Institute. She said school budgets had been slow to recover from the last recession, while a relatively robust economy today offers better paying career options that have deterred many would-be teachers.
"It helped exacerbate the teacher shortage and put more pressure on states," Weiss said.
Utah has grappled with a teacher shortage for at least 10 years, with the gap expected to worsen as student populations grow, according to recent data from Envision Utah, a nonprofit regional planning agency.
That's left many school systems clamoring to one-up each other to fill their classrooms.
Canyons School District in the suburb of Sandy kicked off the "salary war" in April when it raised the starting salary for teachers to $50,000.
At least three other districts quickly followed, offering 4-16 percent pay bumps or otherwise matching that amount.
The Salt Lake district, one of the state's largest, is the latest to cite increasing competition for its proposal to raise the salary for starting teachers to $46,845. It came after an intense contract bargaining cycle that saw the teachers union protesting in red shirts, a nod to the national movement.
"When you don't have enough teachers to fill the positions, you want to do more to attract teachers to your district, and show existing teachers that, yes, we do value and support them," said Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake district spokesman. Olsen said he couldn't address the Red4Ed momentum cited by the state teachers union.
But it's yet to be seen how ramping up teacher salaries will address existing pay inequities between districts.
It's difficult to compare school pay scales because of the endless variables across classrooms and campuses, said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. But merely increasing salaries for all without differentiating for other factors such as student population challenges and regional issues means pay disparities will remain as they always have existed.
"If it doesn't address the relative differentials between school systems, there's no reason to think it would help with teacher equality," Goldhaber said.
In Texas, it's not yet unknown how the billions of dollars the state legislature is granting for teacher pay raises will affect individual schools, something teacher advocates like the Texas State Teachers Association say they're watching closely.
The GOP-dominated state legislature in May approved $2 billion for educator salaries that will be allocated to individual districts to disperse, which means teachers could see salary bumps that range from 2.5-15 percent, said Clay Robison, spokesman for state teachers union.
But there's no telling if that will that prompt teachers to look for the highest bidder and exacerbate existing disparities between school systems, or if it will serve to even the playing field for lower-paying districts.
It's a predicament that's already a key issue in the rural Ellensburg School District in eastern Washington state, where the teachers union launched protests during contract negotiations this summer with unprecedented intensity for the small community.
Donna Grassel, the teachers union president, said comparable school systems pay up to 25 percent more than Ellensburg. Grassel said the disparity has become much greater since Washington has been scrambling under a court-ordered mandate to better fund its public schools.
Recalibrating the complexities of the state's overarching funding model has put school finances on a rollercoaster as lawmakers tried to redo or undo aspects of the financial levers the schools have long depended on, such as local levies.
"We see the impact of districts nearby offering a signing bonus," Grassel said. "In that way, we're still behind the game. We've not yet figured out how to get ahead of that curve."
But Ellensburg district officials point to hefty double-digit raises last year as evidence it has tried to make its salaries more competitive despite budgetary limitations.
"What was not anticipated were the huge salary awards being given by other districts, and there's this pressure to keep up with your neighbors but we're not all funded the same," said Brian Aiken, the Ellensburg district's executive director of business services.
Back in Utah, Kim Lane, an elementary school teacher in Salt Lake, said higher pay is a positive first step in "stopping the bleed" of struggling teachers, but it's still ultimately modest compensation for a tough job. After spending hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies, the 56-year-old veteran teacher said she can hardly afford her asthma medication.
Lane said she can only imagine how younger teachers must feel with the current pay and political dynamics at play.
"I'm afraid we'll see more movement between districts (and) younger teachers leaving districts before they're invested," Lane said.