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Missouri’s rural teachers have the second-worst pay in the country

Two electric school buses sit outside the Ralls County School District bus barn on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Center, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Two school buses sit outside the Ralls County School District bus barn on Nov. 20 in Center, Mo. The district is on a four-day school week schedule.

Missouri’s rural teachers have the second-worst salaries in the country, according to a new report on rural education issues.

Researchers collected salary expenses in rural school districts across the country and divided those by the number of teachers in the district to calculate teacher pay. They found Missouri’s rural school districts spend less on each teacher than every state except Arkansas. The researchers used a cost-of-living adjustment to more accurately compare compensation.

“When you compare apples to apples, Missouri is really not paying teachers very well at all,” said Jerry Dennis Johnson, an author of the National Rural Education Association report and professor in rural education at East Carolina University.

Missouri often ranks low on teacher pay nationally, but this report highlights the acute issues in rural parts of the state. Low salaries in rural districts often lead to high turnover, as teachers move to nearby suburban districts that often pay significantly more, said Phil Murray, president of the Missouri National Education Association and a former teacher in Poplar Bluff.

“Unless an educator is tied to the community, for the most part, experienced teachers have a tendency to move to a place where they can make more,” he said. “Or at least make enough money to pay the bills that they need to pay.”

The high turnover has prompted many rural school districts to search for dramatic ways to retain teachers, including four-day school weeks, said Jon Turner, an associate professor at Missouri State University who studies rural schools.

“In the state of Missouri, we've now passed the 30% mark of the number of schools that are on the four-day school week, and almost all of them are rural schools,” Turner said. “One of the primary factors of that is because rural schools really struggle to hire and retain high-quality teachers.”

The report also highlights other significant education challenges in rural school districts. Almost 16% of rural households in Missouri do not have broadband access, which is the ninth-worst rate in the country.

Missouri also had one of the lowest rates of state tax revenue compared to local revenue; the state contributes about 75 cents for every dollar of local funding. This heavy reliance on local property taxes creates significant challenges in rural school districts and in other districts where property values are low.

“Missouri is really an outlier here in that we put all the burden of operating rural schools on the local taxpayer,” Turner said. “And sometimes the teachers and the kids pay the price because there's not as much tax revenue coming in at the end of the year to support those rural schools.”

As Missouri lawmakers look ahead to the upcoming legislative session, there are calls to revisit the state’s funding formula, which hasn’t seen a major update since the early 2000s. There have also been pushes in recent years to increase teacher salaries. MNEA President Murray said the state needs a fully funded plan to get talented educators into rural school districts.

“Our rural students are probably the ones that are struggling the most and are probably bearing the brunt the most of just not funding schools the way we should be in the state,” Murray said. “That has to change. And it has to be sustained. It has to be organized. And it has to be something that districts can count on.”

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.