Don’t get my crabby analysis wrong: the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students says a lot of good things in the final report it issued yesterday. Co-chairs Senator Deb Soholt (R-14/Sioux Falls) and Rep. Jacqueline Sly (R-33/Rapid City) summarize the guiding understandings of the panel in six points in their cover letter to Governor Dennis Daugaard:
- schools matter to a community
- the most important factor to student success is the presence of a highly qualified teacher
- all students should have equal access to learning opportunities
- South Dakota faces a teacher shortage
- no one plan will fit the needs of all districts and funding equity is essential
- citizens expect that tax dollars are used in a cost-effective manner [Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students, final report, cover letter to Governor Dennis Daugaard, 2015.11.11].
The proper response to most of these points is, “Thank you, Captains Obvious,” but sometimes getting South Dakota legislators to acknowledge the blueness of the sky is a big achievement in itself. We might debate Item #2—out-of-school factors like poverty and income inequality may outweigh teachers’ impact on students, and even among in-school factors intelligent people can debate alternative causality—but I’m willing to let that point slide for now and praise this panel for recognizing that good teachers are darned important.
The above are general principles; the following is the foundational declaration of fact and need of this policy document:
South Dakota’s average teacher salary in 2013-14 was $40,023. South Dakota’s salary ranks last among the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Even adjusted by a comparable wage index, South Dakota’s salaries lag behind others in the region. South Dakota’s low salaries are a hindrance to teacher recruitment and retention. South Dakota has been ranked last in the nation with respect to teacher salaries for quite some time, but the wage gap is significantly widening in relationship to our market share neighbors which compels urgent action to change our 51st ranking [BluRTFTS, 2015.11.11, p. 10].
Couple that with this foundational policy directive:
The task force’s findings support a conclusion that South Dakota should increase its average statewide teacher salary. This is a major premise of recommendations to follow. Increasing the average salary serves as a tangible goal. The task force has found that South Dakota needs to increase the size of the state’s teaching workforce – by retaining teachers in the profession, attracting more young people into teaching, and keeping more new teachers in the state. The best way for South Dakota to meet that goal is by increasing teacher salaries [BluRTFTS, 2015.11.11, p. 10].
Those two paragraphs should frame the entire debate in the 2016 Session over teacher pay. Rep. Lee Schoenbeck acknowledged these facts this summer. We are last in teacher pay. No amount of GOED magic math or cost-of-living factorization can convert our rock-bottom teacher pay into a regionally competitive salary. We are losing teachers because of that gap, and we must fix it. The debate can no longer be whether; the debate must be how and how much.
Data the Department of Education presented at the September task force meeting on the number of teachers we need and the number entering the field could have been interpreted to say that we don’t need to do much to resolve the teacher shortage. The Blue Ribboneers clarify that discussion to say, no, really, we need more teachers than that:
While the expected pipeline does exceed the expected need, the difference is marginal and made up almost entirely of teachers from alternative programs. While alternative programs are a viable option for many schools, they should not be a required aspect of our incoming pipeline. Our incoming pipeline of teachers minimally provides the number of new teachers needed over the next five years.
This will leave only one applicant for each open teaching position throughout the next five years. Only having one applicant per opening does not adjust for a built-in misalignment of geography and skills. Further, this does not take into account applicant quality. By having limited excess pipeline, schools will be forced to hire less qualified candidates or leave some positions vacant. This may result in an unacceptable drop in student achievement [BluRTFTS, 2015.11.11, pp. 14–15].
I don’t like the Blue Ribboneers’ uncreative focus on regressive sales tax as the sole source of new revenue. But at least they beat back the fallacy that we can solve the problem by whacking principals and superintendents. They find our spending on administration “comparable to surrounding states,” our student–administrator ratio “among the lowest in the region,” and administrative expenses “not a significant opportunity for savings” [pp. 18–19].
South Dakota must raise teacher pay. How we do it is up for debate. But we’re going to have that debate, and by March 2016, we’re going to pass a plan to do it.
That’s the mindset of the Blue Ribbon panel (and kudos for that!). That had better be the mindset of every legislator who plans to get re-elected next year.