Want better schools in Missouri? Hire quality teachers, and pay them well

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Missouri Influencer Series

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Missouri must pay its teachers more and work harder to keep them on the job.

That’s what Missouri’s corporate and political leaders said in a survey conducted for The Star’s Influencers series. Of the 43 Influencers who responded to our questionnaire, all said higher teacher pay is “very” or “somewhat” important.

It was the top response in the survey.

“Pay them competitively with other important sectors, and give them the resources to do their job,” said former Missouri state Rep. Mike Talboy, an Influencer and the director of government affairs at Burns & McDonnell.

One study shows Missouri’s teachers earned an average of $48,618 in 2017. That ranks Missouri 41st in the nation, according to the survey, behind states such as Louisiana, Iowa and Georgia.

It’s just $3,000 a year more than the average salary earned by teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, whose vigorous protests in 2018 prompted lawmakers to raise teacher pay.

Missouri’s relatively low teacher pay scale means districts often struggle to hire — and, importantly, to retain — quality educators. “We must get better people in the teaching profession and keep them in the profession,” said Influencer and former Gov. Bob Holden.

Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, said teachers in difficult assignments should be offered incentive pay. “We ... must become more competitive with how we fund the public school system,” he said. He’s right.

Teacher salaries are a complicated subject. Pay in some rural districts brings the average down, for example, even though the cost of living in those districts might be lower.

And teacher salaries are typically set by school districts, not the state. That means local school boards play a large role in improving the learning environment in the classroom. They must be held accountable, too.

To their credit, Missouri lawmakers are working harder to fully fund the state’s education spending formula. Ill-advised tax cuts may make it tough to build on that hard-won progress, so Missourians will need to pay close attention to spending choices over the next few years.

And some Influencers pointed out, correctly, that teacher training and teacher standards are important guideposts for quality schools, in addition to salaries.

“Retain the best teachers and get rid of the rest,” said Influencer Woody Cozad, a lobbyist and former head of the Missouri Republican Party.

“Teachers should be able to more easily be paid on merit rather than have to be crammed into a pay scale decided by others,” said Patrick Ishmael of the Show-Me Institute.

Deciding which teachers are “best” is complicated, of course. Test scores? Graduation rates? Classroom grades? Peer reviews? Yet the broad concept of rewarding quality teachers is sound.

So-called school choice may be less effective. Nearly half of the Influencers said offering school vouchers is “not at all important,” and one in four reached the same conclusion about expanding charter schools in the state.

Their message is clear and is one we endorse: Missouri must concentrate on increasing resources for traditional public K-12 schools.

The 21st century demands a quality, well-educated workforce, and education is the best investment taxpayers can make to achieve that goal. The best investment in education is paying good public school teachers good money.

It’s a standard that Missouri, and every district in the state, should meet.