Schools Face Fallout From Low Wages Print
News/Features - Local News
Wednesday, 25 October 2000 18:00
The Bettendorf school district is in the second year of a three-year early retirement program, designed to cut costs and balance the age and experience levels of what had been a graying teaching corps. The early-retirement incentives are working, but the departure of a large number of teachers brings with it one serious challenge: finding the people to replace them.

Bettendorf has voluntarily put itself in a situation that many school districts would prefer not to deal with: a lack of qualified teachers. While teacher shortages are expected to become a serious problem nationwide in the next decade, they could be especially acute in Iowa, which ranks 35th in the country in teacher pay. (The state minimum salary for teachers in Iowa is $23,000; the average is just under $35,000.)

Iowa’s position is especially glaring in the Quad Cities, where higher salaries are just across the river. The difference between teacher salaries in Iowa and Illinois is typically several thousand dollars for a starting position but can grow to more than $10,000.

Finding teachers “is more of a challenge than in years past,” said Bettendorf Superintendent John Perdue. “It is a growing concern to us.”

Roughly 20 percent of Bettendorf’s approximately 290 teachers have taken early retirement since the district offered the incentives, Perdue noted.

Filling elementary-school positions is relatively easy; Perdue said the district typically gets between 200 and 400 applications for primary-school openings. But for positions in special education and secondary-education math and science, there is “not a sufficient pool of applicants,” he said.

Ethel Reynolds, director of human resources for Davenport Community Schools, said her district has similar problems. It’s difficult to find qualified teachers for special education and secondary industrial-technology, foreign-language, and math openings, she said. It’s also tough finding counselors.

Iowa is at an added disadvantage because some states, to address the teacher shortage, put more money into pay and have even begun to offer signing bonuses. Massachusetts gave out bonuses of as much as $20,000, and “we’ve lost several candidates to Texas, [and] to California,” Reynolds said.

Stealing teachers from other districts or states doesn’t begin to address the problem, however. Attracting new people to the teaching profession has become vital.

The U.S. Department of Education projects that in 2008, more than 22 percent of classroom teachers will be untrained and uncertified, compared to less than 10 percent in 1998.

A number of factors are contributing to the problem: a large number of Baby Boomer teachers reaching retirement age, demands for smaller classes, and high-paying private-sector jobs luring younger workers away.

Retirement is an issue in Davenport as well as Bettendorf. By May 2002, more than 29 percent of the district’s teachers will be eligible to retire, Reynolds said.

Money will go a long way toward determining the number and quality of applicants for future openings in both school districts. “Pay is a substantial issue,” Perdue said.

Increasingly, businesses are drawing teachers away from education with higher salaries. “We’re competing with business,” said Jolene Franken, president of the Illinois State Education Association (ISEA). “Businesses really covet the skills teachers have.”

“Those people can get jobs outside the educational arena for twice as much,” Reynolds said.

“Teachers needs to be out on a level playing field,” Perdue said. Market-driven salaries are “a necessity.”

The magazine Education Week compared teacher and private-sector salaries nationwide and found that a 22-to-28-year-old person with a bachelor’s degree will make an average of $8,000 less as a teacher than in private business. The disparity grows with age and education: A 44-to-50-year-old person with a master’s degree earns an average of $32,000 more in the private sector.

Competing Plans
School officials, education unions, and politicians from both parties agree that teacher compensation is one of the most important issues facing Iowa and the country as a whole. The ISEA, in fact, is working on no other issues this year. “The whole focus this year has been the teacher shortage,” Franken said. “This is our issue. This is our concentration.”

The technical challenge of deciding how to boost compensation for teachers is compounded by two particularly sticky issues: how to pay for bigger salaries, and how to boost student achievement. “The public wants an equal return for that [increased] investment” in teacher salaries, Perdue said.

Two plans for Iowa, both released this past summer, are presently competing for legislative attention. The Business Forum on Education released its proposal in June, and the governor-backed Educator Compensation Design Team followed in August.

The two plans share strategies – increased base pay and financial incentives for meeting certain standards – but they also diverge significantly. The Business Forum on Education proposal focuses much more on teacher certification and standards, requiring some type of testing and certification at each of six levels. It’s also more generous for experienced teachers, starting at $25,000 and topping out at $57,500.

On the other hand, the plan developed by the Educator Compensation Design Team would set a market-based minimum salary of $29,699 for the next school year. Top-level teachers would end up at $50,108 annually. This plan, which was developed at the request of Governor John Vilsack, uses continuing education instead of tests or certification as the standard for higher pay. It also provides a school-wide incentive for student achievement; if pupils meet a goal, the entire professional staff is rewarded with bonuses.

Franken was coy about voicing support for one plan over another. “That’s another thing we’re trying to do politically – ride the line,” she said.

But the union is more likely to favor the plan presented to the governor because it’s not nearly so performance-based as the Business Forum proposal. Franken glibly dismissed calls for greater accountability for teachers, saying that teachers are judged every day by students.

Yet the ISEA might not be the player in the legislative process that it would like to be.

In the previous two election cycles, “we made a very, very considerable effort to recommend a lot of Republicans,” Franken said. “This year, it was very one-sided. They [ISEA members] are fed up with what Republican legislators have done.” That doesn’t bode well for compromise between Republicans – who control both houses of the legislature – and the teachers’ union. “The current legislative leaders are on-record as supporting the issue,” said ISEA Communications Specialist Lana Oppenheim Schlapkohl. “Everyone’s agreed that this is a problem.” But they have not agreed on a solution.

The issue has been put on a fast track, with Vilsack wanting to address the issue in the Fiscal Year 2001-2 budget. To do that, the General Assembly would have to take some action before the end of the year.

The legislature could, in theory, mandate higher salaries without providing any money for them. But that’s not likely. Perdue said he has been told that the state will provide some money, but that school districts will have to pony up as well.

And many districts would likely have to trim programs or try to pass a tax levy. “We’ve not actively discussed that,” Perdue said. “We’re waiting to see what the state’s going to do.”

“There is no fluff money sitting in the budget,” said Reynolds, who argued that money for higher teacher salaries can be found. “I think it’s because we [as a society] haven’t made it a priority,” she said. “If we make it a priority, I think the money will be there.”