A school administrator at one of the Blue Ribbon K-12 funding meetings in Aberdeen Tuesday said that South Dakotans won’t support major funding increases around the idea that teachers deserve higher pay. The administrator said that many South Dakotans think, contrary to all evidence, that teachers make too much and that dropping another $10,000 or $20,000 in their laps would rouse great resentment, especially in smaller towns. The only way we’ll get widespread political support for any policy to meaningfully raise teacher pay, said this administrator, is to show people that current teacher pay leads to their kids going without essentials, like math teachers.
Bob Sittig was in a scary place when his high school math teacher resigned and no one applied for the job.
High school math is a one-man department in the Baltic School District.
And, as Superintendent Sittig so correctly points out: “You got to have a high school math teacher” [Patrick Anderson, “Teacher Openings Skyrocket, Interest Wanes,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.06.25].
Anderson reports that Sittig lucked out: the math teacher who resigned decided to come back. But lucking out is not a sustainable hiring policy for our schools. If we want our kids to learn math, we’ve got to pay for it. If we want more applicants to choose from, we have to end South Dakota’s reputation for shortchanging teachers.
The administrator I talked with Tuesday mentioned something many other participants in the Blue Ribbon sessions around the state mentioned, that the K-12 funding task force should look for ways to increase respect for teachers. Rather than fiddling around with ideas for outreach (what, another ad campaign from Lawrence & Schiller? South Dakota Teachers—Nicer Than Martians!), the task force and the Legislature should take action that directly solves the problem of low teacher pay draining the applicant pool. If the Legislature waits for cultural perceptions of teachers to shift, the Legislature will never act.
The Legislature didn’t wait for the culture to shift this year when it raised taxes $85 million to fix our roads. Of course, as my administrator interlocutor noted, people can see and feel potholes. Maybe that problem already had sufficient public buy-in for legislators to feel they had electoral cover to act. (Also helping: not an election year! The Blue Ribbon panel’s recommendations will come up in an election year.)
So on K-12 funding, must the Legislature wait for enough South Dakotans to feel the potholes—the math-holes, the music-holes (Anderson reports that an applicant turned down the Alcester-Hudson music position because she could make more teaching music half-time across the border in Iowa), the opportunity-holes caused by our state’s cheapness? Or does the Legislature choose lead, raise teacher pay to competitive interstate levels, and spend the 2016 election season defending that policy and leading a conversation about why teachers deserve such a raise and such respect?