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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s education department is concerned teachers are leaving the state for better pay elsewhere, which is leaving the commissioner pleading with legislatures to look at raising educators’ salaries.

Lawmakers returned to the Capitol Tuesday for a hearing on federal stimulus spending. The agenda was for the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to tell representatives how they were spending federal relief money. Instead, a good portion of the meeting was spent discussing teacher salaries.

According to the National Education Association, Missouri has the lowest starting pay in the country.

“If we do not do something soon, it is very easy for our teachers to cross state lines,” DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven testified Tuesday. “Just looking at our border states, we are falling significantly behind. We are already at the bottom of our eight bordering states in teacher salaries.”

Missouri is receiving billions of dollars in federal COVID relief money. DESE alone had already received a billion dollars from previous federal packages and an additional $2 billion is one the way from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“These short-term dollars aren’t going to translate into increasing teacher pay,” Committee Chairman Rep. Doug Richey (R-Excelsior Springs) said.

Richey started off the more than four-hour meeting saying he is not a fan of spending the federal money because it causes the country more debt.

“What those dollars do represent is a line of credit that the feds have extended to states like Missouri and to the extent that we send against that line of credit we are participating in ultimately deficit spending, federal debt, and/or bad monetary policy,” Richey said. “They are one-time dollars, they are unique, they are not reproducible, so what is it that we can do with these dollars that will provide long-term benefit.”

Between the governor’s office and DESE, the state is spending more than $450 million COVID relief dollars on increasing internet access.

“I think we are all aware of the need to invest in our infrastructure for broadband and we certainly knew that before the pandemic,” Vandeven said, “It became very clear when our data showed that about 1 in 5 students didn’t have appropriate access in their home.”

Besides broadband, another concern for the department, the lack of educators.

“Teachers are leaving the field at a greater rate than we’ve ever seen before,” Vandeven said. “There hasn’t been an increase in teacher salary or an increase in the respect for our teachers in a significant period of time.”

Richey pointed out to the committee and the Vandeven, teachers and school districts pay into the state’s teacher pension system, leaving teachers better in the long run.

“When you’re looking at teacher salaries compared to other states that don’t require districts to have to pay 14.5% into a retirement/pension model,” Richey said. “However, that means you have a long-term perspective when it comes to your pay because the take-home pay is not the full picture of what it is costing, and you are benefiting from.”

Vandeven said she agrees Missouri has a strong pension system, but educators aren’t sticking around long enough to receive the benefit.

“Unfortunately, we are losing a large number of teachers within the first five years,” Vandeven said. “I will also share with you that a lot of that needs to educate our teachers a little bit more on the pension system.”

She said teacher pay and the shortage of teachers is the number one concern she hears from local school districts.

“It’s a great opportunity to make some short-term and long-term commitments and move forward and protect our educators,” Vandeven said.

Rep. Ingrid Burnett (D-Kansas City), a former teacher, said it’s time for the state to make a change.

“They are being asked to do more and getting paid less,” Burnett told other members. “They are spending hours outside of their contracted time working for free.”

DESE said some of the federal money can also be used to give teachers and staff additional stipends when performing additional duties in response to the COVID pandemic. 

As for the Department of Higher Education, Commissioner Zora Mulligan said there is more than $2 billion worth of deferred maintenance on the state’s colleges and universities which COVID relief dollars will be used for.

“We were among the first states that were audited by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General and we are happy to report they had no findings or concerns related to the higher ed spending,” Mulligan said.

Of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Mulligan said the state’s higher education institutions received $100 million while $5.8 went to workforce development.

“Other than a fairly small grant in the grand scheme of the state budget, we haven’t received any funds directly at the department,” Mulligan said.