EVERTON — Tiffany Gladden didn't pursue a teaching career expecting a big paycheck.

"It's definitely not about the money. It's about the kids. They make it worth it every day," she said. "I feel like I'm doing something with a higher purpose."

The second-year teacher in Everton earns a salary of less than $27,000 — just slightly above the state-mandated minimum starting pay of $25,000 for public school teachers who have a bachelor's degree and no experience.

Gladden takes home $1,740 a month or roughly $400 a week. "I made more money in retail than I do as a teacher."

Top officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education back a proposal to change that. It calls for giving all public school teachers a $4,000 raise and increasing the minimum starting salary to $32,000.

Gov. Mike Parson supports increasing teacher to pay as a way to attract new talent to the profession and keep quality teachers. But doing so will be costly. No funding source has yet been identified.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Parson noted the funding "solution cannot just be asking the state to write a bigger check.”

Half of the 124 districts in southwest Missouri started teachers below the $32,000 mark in the 2018-19 year, according to an annual salary report by the Missouri State Teachers Association.

There are nearly 80,000 public school teachers in Missouri, and 2,300 are paid a salary below $32,000.

Last year, the starting pay in the region ranged from $25,000 to nearly $40,0000. Across the state, the average was $32,465.

Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner in DESE’s Office of Educator Quality, said acting on the plan — a critical piece of a larger effort to address the teacher shortage by recruiting and retaining quality staff — is expected to cost $322 million.

"What we pay teachers in our state is a serious barrier to getting people to teach in our classrooms and to stay there," he said.

DESE officials also recommend $75 million in equity funding to offer incentives for new and veteran teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas — such as math, science and special education — and in under-served regions, mostly urban and rural districts.

"Schools with hiring needs in these geographic locations and in these content areas have a much, much more difficult challenge of hiring quality teachers," Katnik said.

Katnik said the hope is that the extra cost will be picked up by the state, not districts, but for that to happen, new funds will have to be generated or existing funds will have to be reallocated.

"This is a heavy lift," he said. "This is a big thing to propose."

'We are going to have to have help'

Michael Wallace, superintendent in the 170-student Everton district in Dade County, said the push to raise the minimum means starting pay in his district will go up by more than $5,000. "I'd be for it if they can help me find a way to pay for it — if."

He said if the $4,000 across-the-board raise and the new minimum are approved, it will cost Everton between $89,000 and $121,000. That's a sizable chunk in the district's $2 million budget.

The district, operating on a four-day school week, runs just two bus routes.

"I'm on a tight budget. We're going to have to get creative," Wallace said. "Our people are worth it, but we are going to have to have help."

Wallace spent 22 years in the tiny Thornfield district, one of the districts where starting pay remains at the state minimum of $25,000. As superintendent there, he recalled how employees applied in better-paying districts.

"I've had people leave and that was the main reason," he said. "That was what was best for their family."

This year in Everton, there were two openings and he noted pay scale may have limited the applicant pool. "We had two apply for one position and one apply for the other."

Gladden, 31, said she is grateful to be employed and knows there are others who make do on that or less. But, the married teacher said if she wasn't in a two-income household, she would "have to take a different job."

She said making ends meet on a lower salary, especially while paying off student loans, can be a challenge. "I know quite a few teachers, in the first five years, that think about that."

Asked about the teacher pay proposal embraced by DESE officials, Gladden summed up her response by saying: "She sighs with relief."

"That would be amazing," she said. "That would make a big difference to me."

Higher pay in border states

For the past year, DESE officials have examined the state of the teaching profession in Missouri.

They also compared the starting, average and state-mandated minimum pay and cost-of-living in Missouri to the bordering states of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

"In all of these categories, our border states are doing better than we are," Katnik said.

DESE shared the data with the Missouri Teacher Table, a group of teachers from across the state and representatives from education associations. The MTT developed the plan to give each teacher a $4,000 raise and increase the minimum.

"Their thinking was that this burden wouldn't fall to school districts," Katnik explained last week. "It would be state money."

The National Education Association reported the annual starting pay for teachers across the U.S. was $39,249 in the 2017-18 year.

The Missouri average, $7,000 below the national average, is one of the lowest. It was near Oklahoma.

In nearly one-third of states, mostly along the coastlines, the average starting pay was higher than $40,000. Those include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

'It's a competitive market out there'

Missouri's highest starting pay levels are concentrated in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, where cost-of-living levels also tend to be higher.

In southwest Missouri, Springfield — the state's largest district — starts teachers higher than most of the region. The district has 1,911 employees paid on the Teacher Salary Schedule.

Superintendent John Jungmann said the district agrees with Gov. Parson that increased teacher pay should be a priority for the state.

"We welcome the state’s effort to explore opportunities for making this vision a reality," he said. "At SPS, we have demonstrated our commitment to increasing teacher pay and our salary schedule now leads the region. We believe this is crucial for teacher recruitment and retention. A school’s greatest asset is a quality teacher."

He added: "Teachers deserve our ongoing support and continued investment."

Penney Rector, chief human resources for SPS, said the school board has repeatedly allocated resources to improve the base pay so the district can attract new teachers from the area and across the state.

"Pay is an important factor for all our employees and certainly for those new to the profession that often have personal obligations as a result of their education," she said of student loans. "I won't say it's the only factor."

She said many teachers feel "called to the profession," so pay, while a consideration, is not typically the top priority.

Rector said other factors include benefits, community amenities, workplace climate and culture, contract length, daily pay rate and lifetime earning capacity.

"It's a competitive market out there," she said. " ... There aren't as many individuals going into teaching."