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State of Our Schools Part 1

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The world of teachers

March 27, 2002

“I like Mrs. Albertson a lot,” my daughter, Amy, says. “She’s one of the best teachers in the world. She makes everything we learn so much fun.”

This isn’t my first child in Jill Albertson’s fifth grade class at Hope Elementary school, and I concur with my youngest’s opinion. If someone made a list of great teachers, Albertson would be near the top. It’s not just that she manages to teach her students to read, write, multiply and pass tests of skill in order to earn points they can trade for ice cream. It’s not just that she demands, and therefore receives, their respect. It’s not just that she makes learning fun. It’s all that plus the fact she really loves and cares about her students.

Talk to any parent in this area and chances are most can name a similar teacher in their experience who they consider to be one of the best of the best and, if they’ve been involved in the schools for a while, they can probably come up with a list of names, not just one.

Now ask me, or those other parents, what a teacher of that caliber should make for a year’s wages. $50,000? $75,000? $100,000? We’d probably answer “yes” to any and all of those numbers, but the truth comes far short of that mark. While the average teacher’s salary in the nation is $42,613 for a secondary (grades 7-12) teacher and $42,898 for an elementary (K-6) school teacher, Montana and Idaho don’t quite make it to the average. Idaho pays an average salary of $35,155, and Montana pays only $32,121. At the local district level, salaries drop even further. The average salary in West Bonner County is just $33,184; it climbs to $37,635 in Lake Pend Oreille; and Boundary County’s district 101 comes in at $37,859. Those figures are for secondary teacher salaries- elementary salaries run over $1,000 less per year. After four years of higher education and one year of student teaching, a beginning teacher can expect to make only $20,989 in Montana and $25,000 in Idaho.

Those numbers are part of the reason why Tony Delewese, President of the Lake Pend Oreille School District’s Education Association, says we might be looking at a future crisis in education. “In 2004, 20% of our teachers will be eligible for retirement,” he said. “By 2009, 41% will be retirement age. Who are we going to replace them with? Five years of education is a heck of a commitment to make to start at $25,000.”

Government is not blind to the situation. Idaho, for example, has taken great strides to improve teacher salaries. Although still 38th in the nation in regard to average teacher salaries, the state will be first in the nation in its percentage increase in the same, based on fiscal year '02-'03 projections, according to statistics from the American Federation of Teachers. In 1989-90, Idaho ranked 45th in the nation – the change from then to '99-'00 put them at #4 in percentage increase of salaries. “We’re playing catch up,” explained George Eskridge, a District 1 Representative to the Idaho Legislature. “But we’re doing it faster than any other state.”

Montana still lags in this area. “As far as salaries go, Montana is somewhere next to Mississippi – at the bottom of the barrel,” explained Ed Sansom, Superintendent of the St. Regis district. “Next year in St. Regis, a starting teacher will make $21,200. Believe it or not, that is at the top of the heap as far as class B and C schools go in this state. That is one reason why we are losing almost 70% of our teacher graduates to out-of-state recruiting.” In fact, those same AFT figures placed Montana 40th in the nation for average teacher salaries in 1989-90, and in the decade since they have dropped to #47, despite a modest 28.1% increase in salaries during that period.

According to Delewese, states all over the nation are struggling with the issues surrounding teacher salaries and an ever-smaller pool of new teachers. “In Arizona, they’re even paying a signing bonus to teachers who come to work for them,” he said. By the 2008-’09 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics says elementary enrollment will increase by 17% and secondary enrollment by 26%, creating a demand for an additional 2.7 million teachers.

Still, the picture is not all that bleak. According to U.S. census data for 2000, the median family income in Montana is $32,045 and jumps to $37,462 in Idaho. Census data also shows that dual-income families became the norm in America in 1998, so teacher salaries seem to be right in line with the wages of the taxpayers who pay those salaries; when both husband and wife work as teachers, their income is above the median for families.

State salary schedules allow for pay increases each year for cost of living, additional experience and increased training in the form of a degree. (More experienced teachers in the Lake Pend Oreille district last year agreed to hold back on their salary increases in order to pay for the state’s mandated, but unfunded, increase in beginning salaries.) Teachers can also count on a full benefits package, which includes medical insurance, sick pay and retirement, plus built-in vacations as their work contract is for 190 days. That’s a little better than the average worker, as the percentage of uninsured workers hovers at 10.1% in Idaho and 18.5% in Montana.

With salaries and benefits for all employees, not just teachers, taking up the lion’s share of district budgets, funding those salaries is a big issue. In Idaho, the state moved to mandated minimum salary schedules which took much of the confrontation out of the negotiation process each year between districts and unions. Still, all districts in Idaho pay more than the amount on the schedule for salaries, and those additional amounts are not funded by the state.

In Montana, the state Office of Public Instruction and the Legislature are looking to completely change the way education is funded. With no sales tax bolstering the state’s revenues, the bulk of responsibility for education funding has been borne by the local property tax owner. In a series of meetings in March, the state began looking to change that.

“In March, the Legislative Interim Committee on Education and Local Government began a series of nine public hearings across Montana to gather suggestions on proposed changes to how we fund our public schools,” writes their state Superintendent Linda McCulloch. She explained that the state provided 71% of the funding for local schools in 1991; by 2003, that percentage will drop to 60% and property taxes are making up the difference.

Montana is looking at a number of changes, including a move to base funding on a three-year enrollment average to help even out the “hit” districts take when enrollment drops precipitously. They’re also suggesting the state allow increases for inflation and an expansion of county levies or state support to handle the rising cost of health insurance.

The real issues in the teaching field, however, have nothing to do with pay and everything to do with accountability.  For each of those parents who can name one, or a list, or incredible teachers, most can also name teachers who shouldn’t be in the profession. “The unions always got the rap that they protect poor teachers,” said Delewese. “But that’s not true. There’s a procedure to use with a teacher that’s not doing their job, and districts need to follow that procedure. Help them out. I’m seeing a move to more mentoring and peer tutoring,” he added, “and that’s a good thing. Principals can’t be expected to do it all.”

As the nation looks to vouchers, charter schools, magnet schools and other plans to improve education, holding teachers accountable for what students learn is getting bigger play. This has resulted in proposals ranging from merit pay to peer assistance and review. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, it’s time to “get serious about standards for both students and teachers. If students are to achieve high standards, we can expect no less from their teachers and other educators.”

Delewese points out that teachers are “held on an unrealistic plane,” and that no one performs at 150% all the time. “I see a lot of first-year teachers that burn out. They might have been an excellent teacher if they’d been nurtured.”

One hundred years ago teachers were not only expected to teach, they cut the wood for the schoolhouse fire, kept the classroom clean, meted out corporal punishment and, in some cases, cooked the students’ lunch.

Today, teachers aren’t responsible for heating, beating or cooking and a bevy of maintenance workers take care of the inevitable “messes” that come along with any gathering of children. But some say that teachers are doing even more now than they were before. “Teaching is far more complicated than people who have never tried it understand,” said American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman.

“No matter how you cut it, the real questions are: Why do we only teach kids for 180 days a year? Why do we expect teachers to pour more information into the minds of kids who come to us with more emotional baggage than ever before?” asks Sansom. “How do we compete with countries around the world that are accessing technology at an ever rapid pace, and who go to school 260 days a year, along with tutoring on Saturdays?”

Delewese concurs. “How do you judge a teacher’s performance when there are so many variables to education?” he asked. Still, he believes teachers are doing a yeoman’s job. “We have students graduating who attend MIT, Dartmouth, Brown and Stanford. The basics are being taught and kids are coming out with a good technology background.”

The  reason for that has little to do with salaries, and even less to do with accountability. It comes down to people like Jill Albertson, who drive to school each morning and give their all to the students in their classrooms – and for those kinds of teachers, we can never pay them what they’re worth.



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Landon Otis

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