Editorials

How bad are starting salaries for Missouri teachers? Even Mississippi pays more

High School Students Wearing Uniform Raising Hands To Answer Question Set By Teacher In Classroom
High School Students Wearing Uniform Raising Hands To Answer Question Set By Teacher In Classroom Bigstock

Missouri is hemorrhaging teachers.

Only about a third of teachers hired these days stay on the job for at least five years, a report last month by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed. Just one-third.

Nationally, about 8 percent of teachers leave their positions each year. In Missouri, it’s 11 percent.

Education officials wonder why, and here’s at least part of the answer. Missouri has the second-lowest average starting salary for teachers in the nation.

We top only Montana. And, yes, that’s as pathetic as it is stunning.

Every state that borders Missouri does better than the Show-Me State in starting salary. Even Mississippi, typically the benchmark for lousy services, pays more. That’s simply disgraceful for a state led by officials who proclaim the importance of education.

Missouri checks in at an average starting salary of $31,842, according to information provided to the State Board of Education this week. Kansas is at $34,883; Iowa is at $35,766; Kentucky stands at $36,494 and Mississippi comes in at $34,780. The U.S. average: $38,617.

The picture in some ways is even bleaker. The minimum teacher pay the General Assembly sets is $25,000. Turns out, some teachers in rural districts are actually paid that paltry amount. That puts them in the range of $12 an hour. That, of course, puts them in the range of janitors and security guards.

Missouri edges out 10 states with its $48,293 average teacher pay. But when adjusted for inflation, teacher pay has dropped 5.5 percent since 2000. We can do better, can’t we?

As assistant education commissioner Paul Katnik points out, the most important factor in the education equation is the teacher in the classroom. You can change the number of days school is open each year. You can adjust the curriculum. But in the end, it’s the quality of the teacher that matters most.

“Keep in mind that teachers are the most important asset of the system,” Katnik said.

One national survey of teachers across the country showed that salary was easily the most important factor in recruiting new teachers. When it comes to retaining those teachers to stay on the job, salary finishes in a virtual tie with the atmosphere of a school and its leadership as the most important factors.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the money part of this is an issue,” state School Board president Charlie Shields told St. Louis Public Radio. “We recognize that, but it’s certainly not the only issue out there.”

In Kansas City, Andrea Flinders, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 691, said salary remains a significant consideration. “Young teachers are coming out of schools with tremendous debt,” she said. “Making those payments becomes such a hardship on them.”

As lawmakers launch their 2019 session, teacher pay isn’t even on the radar. That should change. Legislators fully funded the school foundation formula the last two years, but that didn’t resolve the teacher pay issue.

One reason: Lawmakers continue to dramatically underfund the cost of transporting kids to school by about $200 million a year. That forces districts to use foundation formula money to cover bus costs, leaving less flexibility to raise pay.

Lawmakers could also make a statement by raising the minimum pay requirement, which remains embarrassing.

Teacher pay must be on Missouri’s agenda this year.

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