The 2015-2016 school year marks my sixteenth year as a professional educator. I’ve worked in Washington for thirteen years. One of the draws that brought me to this state was the state salary allocation model (SAM). As strange as that sounds, it’s absolutely true. I taught in Illinois for three years at the second largest school district in the state. My husband, a music teacher, taught for a company that brought in outsourced band/orchestra teachers to schools that couldn’t afford to hire their own music teacher. We both became acutely aware of the disparity between the districts where we worked. Because salary models are all locally negotiated and district funds are based on property taxes, property rich communities could afford to pay their teachers two to three times more than property poor districts. The district that I worked in encompassed property rich and property poor communities, but the neighboring district housed multiple corporations and could afford to pay their teachers twice as much as the district where I worked. Districts could compete for teachers using salary as incentive. As a result, my district saw a great deal of turnover; teachers, including one of my closest friends, became experienced in the low paying district and then moved to the higher paying districts when they had a few years under their belt. Although there were some veterans in my department, teachers who served as excellent stewards of pedagogy and their content, I was often asked when I was going to leave to move on for more pay at a neighboring district. This mindset frustrated me. When my district was $52,000,000 (yes, you’re reading that correctly) in the red, the solution was to cut teachers and I, like the other 1700 first, second, and third year teachers were RIFed (reduction in force). Although I was offered my position back, I turned it down, looking to find employment in a state that created more equity. So in the end, I left, too.
So for thirteen years, I’ve been in Washington and I don’t regret the decision to move, whatsoever. However, I have stopped looking at the world of educational funding through rose colored glasses. Equity doesn’t really exist, but there are attempts at it and the SAM is one attempt. Negotiated TRI (Time, Responsibility, Incentive) pay and dollars for professional development and technology resources differ from district to district. My husband teaches in a large district which can afford to offer TRI pay and substantial extra curricular contracts. Some districts levy at higher percentages and others receive levy equalization. There are districts that foot the entire cost of National Board Certification (my district is one of those) and others provide a free cohort (my district also does this). So, back to my point—equity doesn’t really exist. But our SAM does provide a foundation for our teachers. That foundation is solid. But maybe our state needs to reconsider adjusting the foundation a bit.
This legislative session has been noteworthy for several reasons. Teachers have asked for the reinstatement of our COLA (cost of living allowance) and for pay increases. While the legislators voted themselves a substantial pay raise, teachers received a 1.8% increase in pay and a 3% COLA for two years. Does that make up for the 1.9% loss from a few years ago? Frankly, I’m not so sure that I’m coming out ahead all that much, if at all. Recent discussion as to whether the legislature will see the contempt charge dropped, also has me concerned. I worry that the lawmakers will find victory and we won’t see increased dollars in our SAM or in a future COLA. I’m disappointed.
But the SAM isn’t perfect and it doesn’t recognize veteran teachers who are continuing to improve their education. Reality hit me about two weeks ago. I’m on year sixteen and I’m almost at an MA+90. I’ve officially topped out on the salary model. I know that I should be thankful that I’ve got that extra degree plus additional credits. Believe me, I am thankful. I worked hard for the MA (Master of Arts) in History with a 135 page thesis to prove it. On the other hand, I’m still working to get more education. I’m really digging educational technology and I’ve attended several technology courses and once I hit that 90 credits mark (which is going to be in the next month) I don’t have anywhere else to go in order to earn more money. I suppose I could coach a sport or advise a club to make more money. I could do additional work outside of school, too. But frankly, I wonder, why does the legislature stop providing pay increases once you hit 16 years of teaching? Shouldn’t we want to keep veteran teachers teaching? I keep reading articles from EdWeek and the Washington Post talking about a teacher shortage and problems with retention rates. Maybe the place to start is at the logical first step—salary. Let’s start recognizing veteran teachers and rewarding them for being leaders in their field. I look at that salary schedule and feel stagnated in my income. I wonder where my potential for income growth is at this point. What are my viable options? I won’t avoid the cliché—I don’t teach for the income, I teach for the outcome. However, the income does have to provide for my continuing education, mortgage, and my children’s college education. While we could argue the merit system when it comes to teacher’s salaries and raises, under our current model, I have no where to go if I’d like to increase my income. I’m 37 years old and I’ve topped out on the SAM. I believe that I have the skills, the heart, the grit, and the knowledge to stay in the classroom for the next 20 years, but can I afford it?
Sadly, I know other veteran teachers feel the same way. Attrition in the field is on the rise. There are myriad reasons for this and pay is a factor. We’ve worked hard to advance our own education. We’ve adapted, adjusted, and watched the pendulum swing in our field and we’re still in the classroom, demonstrating our grit because we love students and we want them to succeed. But that success doesn’t always help to put dinner on the table or pay for our kids to take piano lessons. In a field where the pressure to perform is already so high and the spotlight is always on, it might be good for state legislators to consider recognizing and rewarding the teachers who’ve decided to remain in the classroom to work with students.