Lawmakers grapple over whether to increase salaries to combat a shortage of math, science and special-education educators.
OLYMPIA — Teaching in public schools always piqued the interest of Sonya Chen, a 2015 University of Washington graduate with three grandparents and three aunts who chose education careers in Taiwan.
But as many principals in Washington report a dire need for science teachers, the biology graduate said the salary outlook of teaching eliminated the profession from her post-grad plans.
“Here I feel like pay is not very good and there’s also not a lot of job security,” said the Bellevue native, who plans to apply to medical school soon.
While lawmakers continue to grapple over finalizing a supplemental budget during an overtime special session, one point of disagreement is whether they should combat a shortage of teachers that appears to be most severe in math, science and special education by raising the state’s portion of the lowest beginning salary for teachers from $35,700 to $40,000.
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Leaders in the Democrat-controlled House have argued that higher pay this year is necessary to attract more candidates like Chen to the profession, and to retain new teachers.
Prominent lawmakers in the Republican-led Senate have said hiking salaries now is not the best approach to entice more teachers in areas of need.
Outside the Legislature, academics differ on how best to pull in new teachers.
University of Washington education professor Marge Plecki said raising beginning salaries should be the state’s No. 1 tactic for recruiting a “wider pool of quality candidates.” Plecki was on a legislative task force to study teacher shortages in 2011 that set the ideal minimum pay at almost $49,000 a year.
But Matthew Springer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies teacher compensation, recruitment and retention, said raising salaries to attract new teachers is generally an “incredibly inefficient” approach, but only as long as teachers already make a fair wage.
While a new study by researchers at Rutgers University says teacher pay in Washington is among the least competitive in the nation, Springer said the problem is nuanced because some teaching subjects and some school districts are more in need of teachers than others.
“A more efficient system would begin looking at differences across school settings but also across subject matter,” Springer said.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports many principals are struggling to fill teaching openings, but math, science and special-education teachers are especially needed.
Springer advocated for more directed strategies, such as a $5,000 bonus for teachers working in challenging schools — something Washington already does for some teachers.
Data from the state superintendent’s office says many districts also hire a number of teachers with emergency substitute-teaching certificates, but smaller districts tend to use the emergency certificates more.
When a district can’t find a certified teacher in a specific subject area, the certificate allows them to hire people with expertise in the needed area who don’t qualify for an ordinary teaching certificate.
Republicans this year focused on Senate Bill 6455, which would implement alternative measures aimed at reducing the shortage, such as a new grant program to aid some beginning teachers in financial need. The bill was approved by the Legislature with bipartisan support.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup who sponsored that measure, said that because teachers are paid in part through local school levies, some districts can offer higher salaries and routinely draw teachers away from lower-paying districts, increasing teacher shortages. He said an across-the-board raise for beginning teachers right now wouldn’t help that problem.
Next year, he said, the state needs a comprehensive approach to take most control of teacher pay, raise beginning salaries, while reducing local districts ability to offer higher salaries than competing neighbors.
Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, said pay raises for beginning teachers now would increase applicants to all schools and is one of the big ways to immediately start reducing the teacher shortage.
Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said teacher salaries have been low for too long. The state should “dramatically” increase pay for K-12 staff now to meet essential needs, while still allowing school districts to levy money for additional support in the future, he said.
The state raised K-12 teacher salaries by 3 percent in the two-year budget adopted last year, plus an additional 1.8 percent temporary salary increase over two years that expires at the end of August 2017. Wood said the bump was the first cost-of-living adjustment for teachers by the state since 2008.
Before factoring in retirement and other benefits, the average teacher in 2015-16 made close to $65,000 a year when including money from local levies.
Chen couldn’t say what salary might sway her to become a teacher, but she said “teachers should get a lot more money.”