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In poor, rural Illinois school districts, teacher raises and evidence-based funding are 'a balancing act'

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Galatia High School

The walls of Galatia High School in 2015 display the history of the school with old class photos dating back years on display. Galatia CUSD No. 1 is one of the rural Southern Illinois school districts that pays some teachers less than $40,000, which means it is affected by a new state law that raises the minimum teacher salary to $40,000 by 2023.

CARBONDALE — Gov. JB Pritzker in August signed a bill that will ensure all full-time teachers in Illinois make at least $40,000 a year by 2023.

The raise, which takes effect gradually, will directly affect only a small portion of the state’s workforce.

An analysis by the Illinois Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, found fewer than 8,000 of the state’s 130,000 teachers make less than $40,000.

But the law will make a significant impact in many small, rural Southern Illinois districts, where schools receive less property tax money per student and pay out lower wages than in wealthier areas of the state.

Locally, the Egyptian ($32,180), De Soto ($37,490) Cairo ($31,664), Shawnee ($33,274), Dongola ($33,107), Century ($35,655), Meridian ($35,140), Galatia ($37,445), Lick Creek ($33,361), Gallatin County ($35,797) and Hardin County ($35,361) school districts, plus Consolidated School District 204 in Pinckneyville ($36,250), all offered entry salaries well below the 2023 benchmark, as of 2018-2019, according to Illinois State Board of Education data.

Conversations with local superintendents indicate some schools pay even less than the ISBE data reflects, widening the gap that must be made up in coming years.

And the mandated increases, superintendents say, are a two-edged sword.

On one hand, they represent the possibility of greater wage parity among districts, which could give poorer schools a better shot at retaining teachers.

Even as the nation grapples with a well-documented teacher shortage that inflates classroom sizes, forces educators to teach outside their areas of expertise and leaves many schools without sufficient special education programming, Southern Illinois is suffering from its own miniature “brain drain,” superintendents say.

“We’ve lost at least a half dozen teachers to larger school districts in the area that paid substantially more in my three years here,” said Hardin County Superintendent Andy Edmondson. “It gets discouraging.”

At Edmondson’s school, the starting salary is $36,161 this year, and eight teachers out of 36 make less than $40,000. A bachelor’s degree-holding teacher starting at Carterville CUSD 5, meanwhile, made $44,866 in 2018, over $8,000 more.

Across the country, low-income schools experience pronounced salary disadvantages as they fight for teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Local, rural superintendents worry about other, less tangible factors, too. In an era of urbanization, will up-and-coming teachers be willing to live in small towns that lack supermarkets, let alone nightlife? Will Southern Illinois teachers have enough confidence in their state’s pension system to take jobs here instead of a neighboring state?

“The question is, will $40,000 be enough to make the difference in retaining people, or enticing them to come?” said Shain Crank, superintendent of Galatia CUSD 1.

Like Edmondson, Crank has been at his school for three years.

“In my first year we had 14 candidates,” for an open teaching position, Crank said. “Last year we advertised for a grade school position and we had three.”

His school didn’t attract a single applicant to teach driver’s ed, nor anyone for a high school math job, he added. For now, Galatia has been able to recruit retired teachers to fill the positions, but Crank knows that’s not a long-term fix.

“We’ve got a lot of folks retiring over the next few years. When you lose six or seven in a district our size that’s a big chunk,” Crank said. “I’m not going to say I’m worried, but I’m worried.”

Both Crank and Edmondson plan to scale up salaries over the next four years to keep pace with the new state law, he said.

At Hardin County, that means affected teachers will see raises of about $1,000 per year, from now til 2023.

“You don’t know how big of a difference it will make, but it’s a positive step,” Edmondson said.

At the same time, some superintendents worry about the new cost burden on their schools, as there is no new state funding designated to cover the increases.

“It isn’t that teachers don’t deserve $40,000,” Crank said. “The question will be can local tax dollars and state funding keep up with these mandates?”

At Meridian CUSD 101, a small K-12 district in Mounds, teachers are a significant portion of the staff: 13 out of about 35 educators.

Even a master’s degree-holding teacher starts below $40,000 at Meridian and some other small Southern Illinois districts.

“There’s a lot of lines between our starting salary and $40,000 that have individuals on them,” said Meridian Superintendent Jonathan Green.

Teachers’ pay schedules are a complex mix of incentives. At most districts, teachers receive a raise every year, encouraging them to stick with the profession and hone their skills. They also receive raises for furthering their education, for instance by obtaining a master’s degree.

To preserve that structure, Green expects a “domino effect” of salary increases to “go all the way through,” his staff, he said.

And with his teachers scheduled to negotiate a new contract after this year, the cost of these broad increases remains to be seen.

“I think it’s well-deserved. The issue that’s toughest is it’s law and you’re forced to do it whether you’re capable or not,” Green said. “Our superintendent’s association is getting work groups together to discuss ways we can manage and make this happen.”

Many Republican lawmakers, including former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who vetoed a previous $40,000 teacher minimum salary law, have criticized the mandatory salary increases as an unfunded mandate that infringes on local school districts’ self-governance.

Jason Barickman

Barickman

“School districts are not refusing to pay higher wages because they have buckets of money they are unwilling to spend,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who serves on the Senate Education Committee. “Generally the people running our schools are doing, I think, their best to live within their means with balanced budgets. I don’t like overriding that local control.”

Though there is no state funding dedicated to helping low-income, low-salary schools pay more, the state has provided new support through another avenue.

In 2017, legislators passed the Evidence Based Funding model, which requires the state increase funding for K-12 education by at least $300 million annually, with the great majority of that money allocated to under-resourced schools.

Schools may use the new funding any way they see fit, according to the law, but they’re asked to focus on several dozen strategies that have been proven by research to boost student performance, like lowering student to teacher ratios, adding full-day kindergarten teachers statewide, and adding staff to special education and ESL programs.

Three years in, the plan has created windfalls for some Southern Illinois districts. But education is still far from equal across the state.

Currently, Illinois State Board of Education data shows Meridian receives about 74% of the funding it is projected to need to meet its “Adequacy Target” — the minimum funding needed to provide a high quality education according to the evidence based funding formula.

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The Rondout School District in Lake County, by comparison, receives 288% of its adequacy level. It spent $34,307 per student in 2018, about 2.5 times the state average, versus about $9,382 at Meridian.

Overall, education spending is more than $5 billion short of meeting the adequacy targets of all the schools in the state, according to the Union League Club of Chicago’s Education Subcommittee.

The EBF funding will chip away at that deficit gradually in the coming years.

But it’s unclear whether schools like Meridian will be net winners or net losers financially from these reforms.

Meridian stands to receive about $30,000 from the evidence based funding law this year, on top of its state appropriation, Green said. With some teachers there needing raises of over $7,000 before 2023, it’s possible that total salary increases will outpace evidence based funding received.

Regardless, the new revenue will be key to meeting higher salary requirements, Green said.

But Professor Michelle Mangan, a member of the statewide Evidence-Based Funding Professional Review Panel, cautions that spending evidence-based funding on wage increases will undercut its effectiveness.

Teachers should absolutely make more money, Mangan said.

But if a salary increase comes from a school’s evidence-based funding appropriation then it is being diverted from its original purpose — implementing the identified strategies to enhance student achievement.

In other states, Mangan has studied schools that used evidence-based money as a general operating budget increase, instead of a targeted investment.

“When you take adequacy money and spread it evenly across the different categories of money in a district then you don’t get any results in terms of increased student performance, decreased disparate discipline rates,” Mangan said. “You don’t get anything different.”

Though teachers deserve higher pay, using EBF money to raise salaries doesn’t directly improve failing schools the way EBF is intended to, Mangan said.

“Ultimately, it’s the same people doing the same thing,” she said, in a state where 552 schools were deemed under-performing or worse by the ISBE in 2018-2019.

Schools were diverting EBF money to other needs even before the minimum salary law, Mangan recognized. In an August 2018 study by the Illinois Association of School Administrators, Vienna High School reported using the funds to replace an HVAC system, besides numerous investments to enhance instruction. Benton CCSD No. 47 hired a school resource officer, and formed a risk assessment team.

“With the context of the holes schools had in their budgets after the impasse, some of those expenses may have been necessary,” Mangan said. “Some districts were not financially stable” in its aftermath.

And there’s a legitimate argument that teacher salaries need patching just as badly as leaky roofs, administrators acknowledged.

“For a number of years many districts froze their employees’ salaries because the state wasn’t paying its bills,” Green said. “Now teachers see new money coming in and feel like they’re entitled to a piece of that pie, and I can’t fault them for that.”

Clearly, more money is needed, Mangan said, both for salaries and evidence-based improvements.

But in the absence of dramatic state funding increases, schools should be held accountable for the EBF spending they choose, she said.

“When the EBF law passed there was no accountability built in,” she said. “School districts have to self-report how they plan to spend the money, but not how they actually spent it. I’d like to see districts who are not meeting state standards, let’s take a look at how you’re spending this money. If you’re not spending it on high impact strategies, then I think there needs to be a conversation with the Illinois State Board of Education.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, agrees the state should require formal reporting on EBF spending going forward.

Andy Manar

Manar

But he doesn’t worry about conflict between the laws, both of which he sponsored.

“You can't meet benchmarks without highly qualified teachers. Sending a message to the profession that they’re valued is vital to this effort. ” Manar said. “If I were serving on a local school board I would try to strike a balance.”

A preview of that process came in early October when the Murphysboro Education Association, a union that represents 152 teachers, counselors, nurses and social workers declared a week-long teacher’s strike.

Murphysboro, a “Tier 1” school district considered among the most severely underfunded in the state, has received nearly $2 million in new funding over the last three years. Today, EBF money represents about 45% of the district’s Education Fund, from which salaries are paid.

That substantial influx could have paid for raises of over 4%, teachers argued, making amends for the three years during the budget impasse that they received no increase at all.

However, District Superintendent Chris Grode objected to using the EBF money for raises.

“We spent the evidence-based funding on things that are evidence-based improvements,” Grode said, including new textbooks and 24 new teachers, administrators and support staff hired over the last three years.

Ultimately, teachers and the district agreed on a three-year contract with yearly salary increases of 3, 3, and 3.5% respectively.

“Fairly compensating our educators will mean that Murphysboro can attract and retain the best and brightest teachers for our students,” said teachers’ union Chief Negotiator Catlin Langellier in a news release announcing the agreement. “We want teachers to want to come to Murphysboro, and to stay here. We think this contract will help us reach that goal.”

On Thursday, Jonathan Green will travel to Springfield for the first session of the statewide superintendents’ working group on preparing for the $40,000 minimum wage.

With contract negotiations looming in his district, he’s particularly interested in discussions about how to bargain around the law.

“Some of my teachers will need $7,200,” in salary increases, he said, “but we can’t just plug $7,200 into every teacher’s salary. And there’s districts where their starting salaries are lower than ours.”

In spite of the tough negotiations the reforms could provoke, Green is hopeful his school will be in a better position to recruit and retain teachers.

Last year, Meridian needed eight permanent substitutes. This year, they recruited a full staff, but six are retired teachers back for a spell.

“It has been a balancing act,” Green said. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”

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