KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri schools face recruitment and staff retention challenges this year, something representatives from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) say is an effect of poor compensation for educators in the state.

“Teachers earn, on the dollar, less than people in other professions do,” Dr. Paul Katnik, associate commissioner at DESE, said. “Teacher pay has been talked about for several years and the pandemic certainly hasn’t made any of that easier on us or better.”

Missouri ranks 50th in the nation for educators’ average starting salary, at just $32,970, roughly 19.9% less than the national average starting wage of $41,163 per year, according to the National Education Association.

Between 2019 and 2020, Missouri ranked 45th in the nation for educators’ average annual salary at $50,817, about 2% higher than Arkansas’s average salary of $49,822, which ranked 47th, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Out of the eight states that border Missouri, Arkansas is the only state to have a lower average salary for educators, putting Missouri in second for lowest average salary among its competitors.

“When you look at minimum teacher salary, we’re still at $25,000,” Katnik said. “All of our border states have a higher minimum salary than we do.”

“We finished last with them on that one, so that’s a problem.”

At a Capitol hearing in Jefferson City on federal stimulus spending in November, DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven pleaded with legislatures to raise educators’ salaries, pointing to Missouri’s shockingly low salary figures and competitive compensation offered in border states.

“If we do not do something soon, it is very easy for our teachers to cross state lines,” she said in the hearing. “Just looking at our border states, we are falling significantly behind.”

Illinois has the highest average salary out of the nine states, at $68,305, about 34.4% higher than Missouri’s average, and recently passed legislation which aims to incrementally raise teachers’ minimum salaries from $32,076 in the 2020-2021 school year, to $40,000 by 2023-2024.

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

The last time teachers in Missouri received a raise was in 2006, when the minimum teacher’s salary was bumped from $18,000 to $25,000.

“Our supply is down and our demand is up and when that happens, when you’re a business, you’ve got a problem,” Katnik said. “That’s what we’ve been seeing for the last several years again and again.” 

“The pandemic didn’t cause any of this, but it certainly made it worse.”

DESE recently announced its mission for the upcoming school years, one of which includes taking the minimum starting salary from $25,000, and boosting it to $35,000 by the year 2024-2025.

DESE is also working to recruit and retain more educators, as well as advocate for employees who are often overworked and undercompensated, Katnik said.

“Before now, you had to have 60 credit hours to be a substitute teacher,” he said. “Well, that takes a bit of time and takes some money, or whatever.”

“We created an online training where you can jump online. In a day or two, you can go through all these lessons about how to be a good substitute teacher, professionalism, and how to engage students, and lesson plans — things like that. Then, that serves as an alternative to that 60 semester hours.”

Since launching the new training program, Katnik said over 1,200 people have jumped online and started their substitute teacher training. He said Missouri faces substitute shortages, so the more people getting licensed and allocated among the school districts, the more support educators will receive.

“We have a website if you want to go look at it,” he said. “It’s called teachMO.org and it’s kind of a landing site.”

“If you decide, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ you go to this site and there’s all kinds of different information and resources for you about how you get started, and what you do next, and where are the programs, and that kind of stuff.”

Katnik said schools should be using recruitment and retention grants to support its educators, whether that be through hiring more paraprofessionals, substitutes, allocating stipends, or funding any other resource that might improve the labor intensive challenges and financial burdens teachers endure daily.

“So we’ve got the grants, we’ve got this recruitment campaign that we’re doing, we’re working on increasing the number of subs we have,” he said. “These are the things we’re kind of actively doing that we think will help.”

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