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Missouri school districts are fighting over underpaid teachers

A teacher draws on a whiteboard as students look on.
St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Missouri teachers have some of the lowest pay in the country.

Britt Tate has always worked a side hustle. It used to be baking cakes, but these days, after she says goodbye to her second grade arts class at Bryan Hill Elementary, she drives to Columbia Elementary School to pull a three-hour shift as an afterschool facilitator for the St. Louis Public School District.

Her daughter needs braces. The cost of living keeps going up, and she’s watched multiple colleagues leave the district, retire or change careers. After two years of pandemic, she says, “There’s not a lot of us teachers left.”

Between sickness and high turnover, schools have struggled with staff shortages throughout the pandemic. Now, as the unwinding of COVID restrictions allow classrooms to return to some version of normalcy, Missouri educators are urging lawmakers to do something about the state’s minimum funding for public teacher salaries, which haven’t been raised since 2006.

Those who have stayed in teaching, like Tate, have waited years for the state’s lawmakers to act. Multiple proposals have been floated during this year’s legislative session, but it’s not clear whether they will become law or just another dashed hope.

Momentum for their cause has grown. Gov. Mike Parson threw his support behind teacher raises during his State of the State speech, calling the low pay "unacceptable." Earlier this week, the National Education Association released its annual report on educator pay, ranking Missouri 50th in the United States for starting teacher salaries, trailing only Montana.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Tate predicted, “There's going to be an additional exodus, I think, at the end of this school year.” She added, “I think districts are trying to find teachers now in the hopes that they have enough.”

Missouri’s minimum salary for new teachers is just $25,000. That means school districts are reliant on their local tax bases to boost those salaries into competitive numbers. The wealthier and more populous the district, the more local tax revenue can be devoted to hiring teachers or giving them raises.

This is creating competition among districts. Tate said several school districts are trying to “poach” her by offering a higher salary. She’s considering the offers, but she doesn’t like what they signify for the region’s school systems.

“I think because of the legislative issues, and because of the salary issues across the board in the state of Missouri, they're putting districts in really uncomfortable positions, and forcing them to fight and poach,” she said on Friday. “That's not right for kids. It's not right for the leaders. It's not right for the teachers. It's just a mess.”

Paul Ziegler, executive director of education nonprofit EducationPlus, said he’s seen this pattern before: Teachers may find new jobs at higher salaries, but he cautioned that this strategy also impacts the “fringe” districts that lack the resources to compete with wealthier areas. In response, these districts try to poach teachers from rural schools.

Behind the 'mess' of Missouri's low teacher pay

“We see it all the time here in the region,” he told St. Louis on the Air. “They look to rural communities to kind of lure those people in, and that's unfortunate.”

Teachers in rural areas are hit even harder by the low level of state funding for teacher salaries. Misty Grandel, an English and language arts teacher from Fordland, a rural town just outside Springfield, graduated from high school in the district where she’s worked for more than 20 years.

In 2020, Grandel was named the Missouri Teacher of the Year. She, too, is waiting for the state to finally act on teacher pay.

“Teachers are not martyrs, and we should not ask them to be,” Grandel said. “Teachers love kids, they love what they are doing. And when we look at it that way, then we also have to recognize that then it is our duty to make sure that we are taking care of them.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowskiand Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."