Another legislative session is under way. A recent study committee has asked to Legislature to address the state’s shortage of quality teachers.
What might cause this shortage? The obvious place to look is teacher pay. According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, South Dakota is last in the nation in teacher pay, even behind Mississippi. Average teacher pay in South Dakota is about $39,000 a year, falling well short of the national average of $56,000.
Policy makers will sometimes argue that South Dakota’s low cost of living should be taken into consideration when we discuss salaries.
It is worth noting that our state trails every single state that borders us in teacher pay. Indeed, of the five states that border South Dakota, North Dakota is the closest in teacher pay at about $47,000, or $8,000 more a year than South Dakota. Nebraska pays about $9,000 a year more. Are we really to believe that it costs $9,000 a year more to live in Nebraska than South Dakota? Or that is costs $18,000 more a year to live in Wyoming? Because that’s how much more Wyoming’s teachers make than ours.
Granted some states, like Wyoming and North Dakota, have access to oil revenue. But it is plain that our state is losing teachers to other states due to uncompetitive teacher pay.
Another issue is the voluminous paperwork associated with modern teaching. The educational bureaucracy blob dictates much of what teachers do. Teachers have little opportunity to use their own expertise and discretion, especially as compared to most professional workers. Many doctors I talk to chafe under dictates from both insurance companies and the government that turn highly educated professionals into functionaries. Teachers, who make far less many than most doctors, feel the same way.
So let’s add it up. If someone said to you there is a job that requires a college degree (minimum cost of $45,000), that provides substandard pay and treats you more as a functionary than a professional, would you seek out that job?
As a college instructor in our state, I have seen the calculations of students. More than ever students are being shrewd about their college education. I see our smartest students making a definitive choice away from education in favor of degrees that will pay them better and treat them as professionals.
Are there any solutions? I’d favor a quarter-penny sales tax increase with revenue totally directed to teacher pay. This is unlikely to find support in our Legislature. We might look at our school budgets and review all spending that is not directly related to classroom activity. That includes items like administrative pay, travel, and materials. For example, based on my research on education, I have concluded that money spent on technology (especially laptops and tablet computers) has almost zero educational benefit. Could that money be redirected to teacher pay? Also, are there dictates from state bureaucracy that could be eliminated to free teachers to teach as they see fit?
The problem will not get fixed overnight, but we will see if our Legislature has the courage to tackle this important need in our state.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.