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Teacher Pay History: SD Peaked at 37th in 1945; Last Place Since 1985

Some of my teacher friends are tweeting from the Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE) conference in Rapid City. Yesterday conference attendee Sandy Arsenault tweeted Secretary of Education Melody Schopp’s remark that South Dakota has ranked 51st in the nation for teacher pay since 1986. I’ve heard that  South Dakota’s teacher pay was rock bottom at least a generation before that, but we got to wondering if we could find some evidence.

Arsenault tracked down this table from esteemed South Dakota historian John Miller’s spring 2003 article on education in South Dakota since World War II:

John Miller, "Education in South Dakota Since World War II," South Dakota HIstory, vol. 33, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 52.
John Miller, “Education in South Dakota Since World War II,” South Dakota History, vol. 33, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 52.

South Dakota’s teacher-pay rank peaked at 37th in the 1945–1946 school year, then slid steadily from there. Interestingly, our rank was higher back when teachers’ educational credentials were lower:

For many decades, the educational background of South Dakota’s teachers remained meager. In fact, if not for the presence of a teacher corps composed mainly of teen-aged girls and young women possessing few credentials and willing to accept small salaries, the early educational system would scarcely have been able to function at all. As late as 1961, only 3.6 percent of the slightly more than two thousand rural teachers in the state held four-year college degrees. Another 35.1 percent possessed more than two years of college training, while 54.4 percent had between one and two years, and 6.9 percent had less than one year. In one respect, local school districts benefited from this situation, for it allowed them to keep costs down by paying lower salaries than college graduates could command [John Miller, “Education in South Dakota Since World War II,” South Dakota History, vol. 33, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 50–51].

A 1991 research brief from the Minnesota House of Representatives offers a year-by-year chart of teacher pay rankings for South Dakota, Minnesota, and other states in the region from 1970 to 1989:

Tim Strom and Jim Cleary, "Teacher Salary Trends in Minnesota, 1974–1988," Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department, January 1991, p. 8.
Tim Strom and Jim Cleary, “Teacher Salary Trends in Minnesota, 1974–1988,” Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department, January 1991, p. 8.

This chart disagrees (how dare they!) with Miller on the 1970–1971 ranking, placing South Dakota at 43rd instead of 48th. In the Minnesota data, South Dakota slid when Democrat Richard Kneip takes the Governor’s office, blipped up a bit at the ascent of Republican Bill Janklow, then settled by 1985 into three solid decades in last place.

From these data, we can comfortably summarize South Dakota’s historical teacher pay rankings: since 1950, South Dakota has ranked in the bottom ten for teacher pay. Our ranking dropped as teacher credentials increased, indicating that South Dakota has lagged behind other states in raising teacher pay to compensate teachers for their increasing educational requirements.


  1. Tim 2015-04-21

    While there is some truth that school boards and administrators bear some responsibility for teachers salaries, implying they have the primary responsibility couldn’t be farther from the truth. The constitution clearly states this. While opt outs are a tool schools can use, the supreme court was clear in it’s opinion on opt outs – “The constitution makes funding education both a state and local school district responsibility.  It requires the legislature to make provision “by general taxation and by authorizing the school corporations to levy such additional taxes as with income from the permanent school fund shall secure (the school system)…”  Ultimately, however, the constitution imposes the duty on the legislature alone to “maintain” the school system and to devise the state and local tax system that will “secure” it.  Whatever system the legislature devises, therefore, must be sufficient to ensure the funding of a constitutionally adequate school system in every district.  A referendum conflicts with this constitutional requirement if it permits the voters in a district to reject taxes or levies necessary to fund a constitutionally adequate school system in the district. ” Approximately half of the districts in the state have either tried to opt out or have opted out.
    Many others, like our district, have tried to opt out and failed but currently view the capital outlay flexibility as a short term opt out. As others have pointed out, it’s difficult to raise long term salaries on short term money. Some districts simply don’t have a funding issue because of the inequity in funding when it comes to other revenues. There are districts in the state that get 2 times and even almost 3 times what other districts receive in per student funding because of inequities in other revenues. The system is badly broken and I don’t think local schools bear the responsibility to fix it. South Dakota – we can do better!!!

  2. TimA 2015-04-21

    what rank should our teacher salary be in relation to the other states? What salary would be considered fair? Would it be wise to consolidate some schools located within a 10-15 minute drive of each other to realize a cost savings due to efficiency therefore freeing up funds to increase salaries overall?

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-21

    Fair questions, TimA, and not easy ones.

    What rank should we be? We definitely should not be last; South Dakota is better than that. We can get rid of that 30-year black eye.

    I don’t know know if there is an ideal rank for which we should aim. That rank is not completely under our control: we could say, “Let’s be 28th!” and adopt my moonshot plan to give every teacher a $10K raise, but then current #28 Montana and the ten states right below Montana might all give $2,000 raises, and we’d be back to 39th.

    If we could jump to 28th with $10K raises, we’d be $6,500 behind Wyoming, $4,700 behind Minnesota, $2,000 behind Iowa, $100 above Montana, $500 above Nebraska, and $1,400 above North Dakota. Would that be enough to make us regionally competitive and bring back the music teachers Groton and Warner are looking for?

    Or how about a different metric: in the 2011–12 school year, 24.4% of South Dakota teachers held jobs outside the classroom. Only Maine had a higher percentage. The average moonlighting income for SD teachers was $4,100. Perhaps we offer $4,100 raises to knock that moonlighting rate down to the national rate of 16.1% and get hundreds more teachers who can concentrate on their one and only job of teaching?

    Consolidation: First, consider that South Dakota has 9,328 teachers (NEA 2015, p. 17, Table C-5). Multiply that by the average salary of $40,023, and you get $373 million. Is part of the planned efficiency a reduction in the number of teachers?

    Every little bit helps, but will the savings from consolidation be enough to put the low-teacher-pay issue to bed? We have 151 school districts with about 412 principals and assistant principals and about 120 superintendents. I multiply FTEs and average salary posted by the DOE and get $40 million in admin salaries. If you consolidate, how many of those administrators can you get rid of?

    Start with superintendents: go with the county-district plan (one superintendent for each of our 66 counties), eliminate about 55 FTEs from that DOE Supts count, and you save $4.8 million. Divide that among 9,328 teachers, and each teacher gets a $516 raise.

    Now close down some buildings to consolidate principals. This is where consolidation gets tricky. First, you’ll get all sorts of community blowback—shut the only school building in a small town, and you kill the town, or so the booster argument will go. Second, consolidating schools doesn’t reduce the number of kids we have to teach. We can’t just cut buildings by half and double class sizes everywhere; that’s not good for education. Third, consolidate too far, and you’re just shifting costs onto kids and families, who shoulder the extra cost of time and transportation.

    So let’s just spitball a number. Suppose we wade through the brambles above and find we can eliminate a quarter of our principals and assistant principals. I’m going to cut a higher percentage of HS admins and a lower percentage of elementary admins, under the theory that we need to keep more of the elementary buildings open to keep class sizes lower for the lower grades (research suggests smaller class sizes help little kids learn but make much less difference for older kids’ learning). Those consolidation cuts save another $7.4 million, adding another $796 to each teacher’s paycheck.

    I just fired 157 administrators and took away autonomy from 85 school districts to raise teacher pay $1,311… and we still don’t catch Mississippi and trade in our last-place teacher pay rank. We can boost our numbers by laying off teachers through consolidation, but I think we’re still going to need a bigger plan.

    (By the way, in 2011–12, average SD principal pay was $69,200, third-to-last in the nation (we beat Oklahoma and Montana. Our admin pay rank isn’t much better than our teacher pay rank. We appear to be equal opportunity misers.)

    When you say 10–15 minute drive, does that include consolidating Brandon, Harrisburg, Tea, and West Central into Sioux Falls?

  4. Greg 2015-04-21

    It’s time to look at real solutions of our funding problems and teacher pay. We have schools that opt out for more than $4,000.00 per student while neighboring districts are opting out for $900.00 per student. These schools are located within 12 miles of each other. Its time that we consolidate some schools. Consolidation would free up teachers and free up money for better salaries. No business sector can continue to run things the same way forever without change. We like to compare our school salaries to Minnesota then we need to run them like they do in Minnesota.

  5. o 2015-04-21

    Tim, your competitive/ranking question needs to be framed in the context of where SD is in her teacher shortage crisis. For years there have been arguments of fairness or quality – pay in ranking where SD ranks in things like educational outcomes (which put us anywhere from the top ten to top half consistently). Now that we are trying to fill slots that are sitting empty (402 currently and that is before 2015-16 contracts have been issued), and given that there are not enough teachers in the SD school pipeline, we have to get teachers who are in practice to come to SD to fill the slots our students need. That means we have to have an attractive salary to get our regional neighbors to provide the educational opportunities that the Constitution requires us to provide to our children.

    Salary increases that encourage our brightest candidates to get into teaching, stay in the profession in SD, and remain for more than three years are all part of an important, long-term discussion of solutions, but the shortage is NOW. The question to be answered is how to put out the immediate fire created by 30 years of kindling.

    One final teacher pay statistic I will put out here is the relationship between average teacher salaries and average per capita incomes for our state. SD is the lowest in that ratio as well. it is not that SD is a “low-paying” state; it is that SD is uniquely low paying of its teachers. SD pays its teachers 86.53% of the average per capita income of SD. Only two other states (well one state and one district) pay teachers below the state’s average per capita income (ND and Washington DC) and the national average is 131%. That is not an argument to get into this profession.
    Charts C-9 and D-3

  6. TJ 2015-04-21

    Before 1959, there were only 48 states. So, 41st is 7th from the bottom not 9th.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-21

    Good point, TJ! Across that time span, we should count from the bottom, not from the top.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-21

    Wow, O. That 86.53% stat should put an end to the folks who say, “Everyone’s underpaid! How about you teacher quit complaining?” (It won’t, but it should.)

    As O helps make clear, we shouldn’t adopt any arbitrary number as a goal in itself. We should raise our teacher pay to whatever it takes to solve our immediate teacher shortage and prevent future shortages. Whatever rank that comes out to, fine.

  9. Charlie Richardson 2015-04-21

    The funds that were earmarked for education from SD lottery revenue and since transferred to the general fund, need to be re-allocated to their original purpose. Nothing is ever going to change regarding education funding if the governor and the legislature continue this charade of balancing the general fund budget with lottery income. It’s gone on so long now that the budget committee expects that piece of the pie to just be there, and they don’t even consider other revenue sources. Yes, I’m talking about a state income tax. The burden of funding (due to district opt outs) has been placed too heavily on the property owners for far too long. I agree that cuts have to be made in administrative costs, and I like the idea of having just 66 school superintendents in the state. I realize that as long as we have a republican governor and a super majority republican legislature, that the reality of a state income tax will never be achieved, but in all honesty, the financial burden of education funding in South Dakota has not been fairly distributed for a long, long time. It’s time that Pierre realizes that education/teacher pay is not a line item expense on the state’s balance sheet, but an investment in the future of South Dakota and all it has to offer.

  10. Pat 2015-04-22

    All of these trends are unlikely to change unless the general make-up of our political representation changes. What we have, is what we will get…
    Until people that value education and understand the implications of short-cutting the academic achievement of South Dakota students are induced into running for office…and we actually elect them, we will continue to be at the bottom.
    Keep waving the banner, and talk someone SMART into running for office…then talk your friends and neighbors into voting for them!

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-23

    Elect someone SMART?

    Hmm… that requires having (1) lots of smart potential candidates to recruit and (2) lots more voters who are willing to vote for smart people.

    (1) requires a top-notch education system that churns out lots of smart graduates. Then it requires job opportunities with competitive wages to keep those smart people here. It requires a culture that welcomes smart people.

    (2) also requires a culture that welcomes smart people, that ranks keen intellect as a top qualification for elected officials. That attitude goes hand in hand with valuing education and respecting teachers and the work they do to promote intellect and produce smart graduates.

    Connect those ideas with the smart voting that Pat calls for, and you may see the political interest that the current regime, built on a cadre of less-than-deep thinkers in the Legislature and the bewitching eyes and coarse anti-intellectualism of Congresswoman Kristi Noem, has in keeping teacher pay low.

  12. Cheryl Halsey 2015-04-23

    Just as I’ve always thought…there’s a fear of intellect at the base. God forbid “smart” people should run things. We can have what we will there to be…
    Our will is insufficient.

  13. Les 2015-04-23

    The 86% per capita stat is no less unfair to a great many wage earners than is low pay to teachers.

    The lottery dollars are budgeted into education, Richard. They took back dollars going into Ed before lottery so it’s essentially the shell game with our tax dollars.

  14. Daren 2015-04-23

    I note that the data is not adjusted for cost of living. When we moved to South Dakota several years ago, the low cost of living actually made living here more feasible than Minnesota. Does anyone know of any cost of living adjusted data? Perhaps we are only a bit low and the $4100 raise is enough, rather than needing $10,000.

  15. Woody 2015-04-24

    Interesting to note graph. Iowa is losing ground quickly.
    Also pension and benefits need to be included.
    Maybe the spread difference to other states is narrowing? This would show a less emphasis on education across the country.
    I vote for an income tax to balance the wealth in this state.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-24

    Interesting question about the spread, Woody. The National Center for Education Statistics offers this table of average teacher salaries in each state at the end of each decade starting with the 1969-1970 school year:

    In 1970, the range of salaries from the highest-paying state to the lowest-paying state was 55.2% of the mean and 59.0% of the median. With some notable up and down in between, by 2010, that range was 65.6% of the average and 72.7% of the median. The hi-lo gap has increased, suggesting that not every state has devalued education at a similar rate… but to really test your suggestion that maybe all states have put less emphasis on education, we’d have to look at a measure like percentage of GDP or per capita income spent on education.

    Looking at that same NCES decade-by-decade table, I find South Dakota’s “z-score” (the statistical measure of our deviation from the average) went from –1.957 in 1970 to –2.607 in 2010. Translation: in 2010, we wre relatively farther from the national average salary than we were 40 years before that.

  17. Jana 2015-05-06

    Add respect to the shortfall that this state provides teachers. Heck, it’s National Teacher Appreciation Week and the underpaid public servants can’t even get a Tweet out of the Governor’s Office.

    Crazy to think teachers will get more money when they can’t even get 140 characters from the Governor!

  18. Bill 2015-06-29

    Yes there was 48 States before 1959. Today we use the ranking of 51. Is that because we include Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico? So back in 1948 we (South Dakota) at that time being 41st was 8th from the bottom not 7th or 9th. (Using Washington DC or Puerto Rico as 49th.) Hope that clears everything up.

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