JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri politicians are talking about improving teacher pay, and for good reason.
Missouri ranked 40th of 50 states in average teacher pay in 2017-2018, according to National Education Association data, and state education officials spent the past year studying ways to change that.
Those officials now back a proposal to give all public school teachers raises and start new ones at $32,000, up from $25,000. That would mean a lot in southwest Missouri, where self-reported data indicates half the districts start teachers at less than $32,000.
But that would also mean writing big checks — from $4.4 million to get everyone to $32,000 to more than $300 million for $4,000 across-the-board raises — and the Republicans who run the state aren't ready to commit to that.
Gov. Mike Parson, one such Republican, said he wants to “start discussing ways to improve teacher pay” in his State of the State address Wednesday.
But in his next breath, he said, “the solution cannot just be asking the state to write a bigger check."
Instead, he said, “We are going to ask school districts, school boards, and (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to propose a better plan for our teachers.”
He didn’t say what that plan should include, but DESE doesn't plan to change up its proposals.
Paul Katnik, a DESE official who led a study of teachers’ working conditions that led to the big requests, said Thursday he’s not planning to lead another one.
He said his department is working on plans to help schools recruit more new teachers and retain the ones they have, but none of what he mentioned centered on paychecks.
“We know it’s a big ask,” Katnik said of the salary proposals. “We know there’s not $400 million sitting around with people saying ‘What can we spend this on?’”
“Now comes the really hard decisions and conversations.”
With the release of the governor’s budget — and no additional money earmarked for teacher raises — those hard conversations head to the General Assembly. The House and Senate write their own budgets from scratch and can do as they please so long as they finish by early May.
Whether they’ll take on DESE’s raise proposals is unclear.
House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said his chamber would be happy to try if the money is available, and it may be if lawmakers decide to tax online sales like most other states this year.
“I don’t know where you find the money to do teacher pay at this point,” Haahr said in an interview Thursday, “but obviously, there are some potential revenue generators that we’re considering statutorily. If those were to happen, I’d certainly think increases in teacher pay would be something to consider.”
Parson, for his part, wants to put new online sales tax money into a state savings account designed to help the state cover its bills and pay off debt.
When asked about the request for more than $300 million to raise minimum salaries to $32,000 and give everyone a $4,000 raise, Haahr said he “would have a hard time seeing how we could afford something like that.”
But Haahr did not dismiss the $4.4 million request to raise minimum salaries to $32,000, which the State Board of Education recommended in December.
He also mentioned that one of his members filed a bill requiring schools to pay higher minimum salaries regardless of whether they get more state funding.
Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, is the sponsor of that bill, which would raise the mandatory salary floor from $25,000 to $32,000 over the course of seven years.
It’s not clear how much that would help cash-strapped districts. Tammy Erwin, the superintendent of the Humansville district, told the News-Leader it might even mean fewer teachers in her schools.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said lawmakers in his chamber want to help teachers, too, but their chief budget writer seemed reluctant to intervene directly.
Hegeman pointed out that local school districts can already use the money they get from the state to increase teacher salaries.
“Now whether they give pay raises, that's really in the venue of the local school districts,” he said.
He also noted Parson's budget calls for giving schools $10 million more in general funding than they received this year, plus an extra $10 million for transportation.
(Even with the increase, transportation funds still lag more than $100 million behind the level laid out in state law).
"If we give them more money to run buses, that would give them discretion to be able to adjust the salaries, and I think that's where many of us would hope that they would put that," Hegeman said.
District leaders generally point out that they can’t do that without sacrificing something else, but Hegeman said that’s how everything works.
“We all have to have priorities,” he said.