Randy Richardson is a retired former educator and associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.
In 2019, I wrote an article for Bleeding Heartland about the growing disparity between administrator and teacher salaries. At the time, I did not expect the situation to get worse. I was hoping that Iowa’s ever-growing rainy day funds could be used when pay became more of an issue.
Sadly, here I am again three years later, encouraging Iowans to focus on what has become a major problem.
OTHER STATES AFFECTING TEACHER COMPENSATION
Several states have recently launched teacher compensation initiatives. New Mexico Governor Michelle Luhan Grisham signed into law a bill that increased teachers‘ salaries by up to 20 percent and created a $50,000 minimum wage. The new law will also increase the average salary of a New Mexico teacher to $64,500 per year.
Even in Florida, anti-public education Governor Ron DeSantis announced he would funnel $800 million from the state budget into a plan that would raise minimum wages in that state to $47,000. The governors of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia have also signed bills to raise teacher salaries in those states. Large state budget surpluses (resulting from a huge influx of federal funds during the pandemic) made these programs possible.
Although Iowa also has a large state budget surplus, Gov. Kim Reynolds has not outlined any plans to raise teachers’ salaries other than offering a one-time $1,000 bonus that only some educators qualified for. . Instead, the governor prioritized policies that would make teaching more difficult and provide additional incentives for private schools.
A GROWING GAP
Since I wrote this 2019 article, the average regular salary for a teacher in Iowa – which does not include extra duty pay or teacher salary supplement pay – has only increased by 1 $997, to reach $57,427 per year.
Not only has the average salary been relatively stagnant, but also the salary of new teachers. According to the most recent numbers reported by the National Education Association, Iowa now ranks 36e in teachers’ starting salaries.
The lack of attention to teacher salaries is even more appalling when you consider that Iowa ended fiscal year 2021 with a $1.24 billion surplus and is expected to have another huge surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Reynolds hasn’t pledged to raise teachers’ salaries, and neither have Republican candidates for state legislature. Only the Democratic candidates prioritized it.
PROBLEM AGGRAVATED BY CHANGES TO COLLECTIVE BARGAINING
Changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law in 2017 are partly responsible for the relatively small wage increases. These changes made it illegal to negotiate almost everything except base pay. Some districts have chosen to negotiate unilaterally with teachers over a traditional pay scale, but even in those cases the playing field has swung to heavily favor school districts.
The loss of power at the bargaining table continues to show when comparing the salaries of teachers to those of superintendents and principals. Since my 2019 article, the average salary for state superintendents has increased by more than $12,500 to $167,407, according to figures provided by the Iowa Department of Education. Ten years ago, the average salary for teachers was 40.4% of the average salary for superintendents. In 2020-2021, this percentage fell to 34.4%. Although changes to collective bargaining have hurt teachers, they do not appear to have limited superintendent salaries.
The average salary for state managers is now $111,534. Ten years ago, the average salary of a teacher was equal to 55.7% of the average salary of a principal. Today, that figure is down to 51.5%.
Some legislators have advocated limiting the share of the school budget that can be spent on administrative costs. This article should not be interpreted as a call to limit administrative salaries. The salaries paid to school administrators in Iowa are no different than those of their peers in other states. Instead, we need to look for ways to bring teacher salaries more in line with what administrators earn.
RURAL TEACHERS IN IOWA ARE PARTICULARLY UNDERPAID
In all discussions of teacher compensation, we tend to overlook a different issue: the growing salary gap between teachers in small districts and those in large districts. A state law sets a minimum salary for teachers in Iowa, which somewhat narrowed the starting salary gap. As an example, I compared the salaries of the 20 smallest districts in the state to those of the 20 largest districts. While I understand this is an extreme comparison (since many of the smaller districts have fewer than 200 students and only offer a K-6 program), it will illustrate the shortcomings.
Based on salary data from the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Employment Public Relations Commission, the average starting salary in the 20 smallest districts in 2020-21 was 37 $909.25. Only four of those schools had starting salaries above $40,000.
Meanwhile, the average starting salary in the 20 largest districts was $44,003.70. Only two of the largest districts offered starting salaries below $40,000. This means that the average starting salary in the 20 largest districts is more than $6,000 higher than in the smallest districts. This is a huge advantage when hiring the most qualified staff.
This gap is even more pronounced when looking at the maximum salaries in these same groups. The 20 smallest districts had an average maximum salary of $58,407.60. The average maximum salary in the 20 largest districts was $96,301.85. That’s a difference of a whopping $37,894.25 per year and represents a 64.9% higher amount. This gives large districts a huge advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining the most experienced and educated teachers.
Several factors play into this huge difference in maximum salary. First, virtually all major districts have a long history of collective bargaining and advocacy. In the 43 years that Iowa’s successful collective bargaining law has been in effect, a history has been established of paying people based on experience and education. Many of the larger districts have specific compensation pathways for teachers with EdD and PhD degrees, which are almost never provided for in smaller rural districts.
Additionally, many of the larger districts also compete with urban and suburban neighbors for teachers, so offering competitive, high-end salaries helps them find the most qualified teachers from smaller rural districts. Some of the smaller districts have never been involved in collective bargaining or have a very limited history with bargaining.
Although increasing teacher salaries will not be enough to prevent large numbers of educators from leaving the profession, it would be a good start. If Republican-controlled states like Mississippi and Alabama can commit significant funds to raising teacher salaries, then there should be enough public support for a similar initiative in Iowa.
Unfortunately, the current Republican leadership in Iowa has no interest in supporting public school teachers. Reynolds and some lawmakers prefer to hit public schools and use the state budget surplus for tax cuts for retirees and the wealthy. Any successful attempt to raise teachers’ salaries statewide will require a grassroots effort to pressure lawmakers.
Top photo: “Teacher compensation based on experience” by Quite Particular is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.