Gov. Dennis Daugaard and state education association leaders agree: Higher salaries have aided teacher recruitment in South Dakota.
After a Department of Education report released Friday showed substantial teacher salary increases, both also agreed on a need for more.
South Dakota has come a long way in improving teacher pay since the Blue Ribbon task force and resulting 2016 legislation, said South Dakota Education Association President Mary McCorkle. However, when it comes to retaining the best teachers and recruiting young people into education, she said, “We’re still not out of the woods.”
For the 2016-17 school year, the average teacher salary in South Dakota rose to $45,625, an 8.8 percent increase over the $41,940 of a year earlier.
South Dakota’s statewide average teacher salary target is $48,500, established by the Legislature as a part of its Blue Ribbon education package.
“We knew that it would take some time to meet the target salary goal,” Daugaard said in a news release. “I’m confident this upward trend will continue in the years to come.”
Some districts, including Wall’s, saw average teacher salary increases of greater than 20 percent last year. At Rapid City Area Schools, the average teacher salary grew to $51,335, a one-year jump of $5,827 or 12.8 percent.
Not every teacher got the same raise. Districts receive state funds under a formula factoring school size and student-teacher ratios. Districts retain discretion over how and how much to distribute, although the 2016 law created a board to measure and ensure accountability.
At RCAS, the new money mostly went to beginning teachers, said Rapid City Education Association President Sue Podoll.
“We have work to do to recognize and honor our veteran staff,” she said. Many of them are nearing retirement age, and rising pay could aid retention, she said.
The emphasis on raising teacher salaries in South Dakota grew out of a recruiting and retention crisis. Historically, South Dakota teacher salaries have lagged the nation.
A 2016 National Education Association compendium listed average teacher pay for the state’s 9,400 teachers at $42,025, dead last in the nation. California teachers earned $77,179. Alaska teachers earned the median of $67,443.
The import of being perpetually last grows as fewer students choose to teach, either because of pay or increasing classroom demands.
“It’s not your 1950s classroom,” Podoll said.
The country as a whole has not done a good job of attracting people into education, said SDEA’s McCorkle. And increasing demand for teachers nationwide has made recruitment especially difficult for South Dakota.
“We were losing educator after educator,” McCorkle said.
The Legislature’s 2016 package approved a half-penny sales tax, with the bulk of new funds marked for teacher salaries. The tax was initially projected to raise $67 million for K-12 education.
Daugaard and legislators hoped the statewide salary target of $48,500 would improve South Dakota’s competitiveness with Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming.
But even as South Dakota improved its standing, McCorkle said, other states improved theirs. So far, she added, “We’ve done better.”
Over the first part of this decade, average teacher salaries not only lagged but declined in some South Dakota districts. In Rapid City, teacher buying power has only now surpassed where it was in 2009, when the average salary was $43,084. Adjusting for inflation, a teacher who earned $43,000 in 2009 would need to earn $49,000 to buy the same goods today.
Salary is defined as instructional salary and benefits paid to a certified teacher assigned to a K-12 self-contained class, course or classroom situation. Last year, following the increase, average teacher salaries ranged from a high of $54,755 in Douglas to a low of $35,565 in Rutland.
For RCAS, the average teacher salary of $51,335 ranked fourth in the state, or $272 above the Sioux Falls district.
Teachers, however, often receive additional income for leadership roles, coaching and other activities. On a list of average teacher compensation — a measure of salary plus other — Sioux Falls ranked No. 1 last year at $68,432. RCAS teachers averaged $64,058.
For fiscal year 2017, total teacher compensation in South Dakota amounted to $576,544,120 — $4,435 for each of the state’s roughly 130,000 students.
Recent salary increases haven’t stopped the exodus of teaching graduates, McCorkle said, but they have slowed it.
Before last year, she said, state graduates about to enter teaching careers told her they weren’t even considering South Dakota. Last year, she said, many began to include the state among their options.
Beyond the meaningful salary increases, she said, educators across the state feel more appreciated and respected since the 2016 legislation.
“That’s been important,” McCorkle said.
Podoll echoed the sentiment. “There are lots of people who didn’t look at teaching as a choice of careers because of the pay,” Podoll said. That’s going away, but the demands of teaching remain high.
“You teach with your whole body — mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said. “That now is getting harder. There are more kids and families in trauma and poverty, and that’s tough to deal with.”
Now in her 25th year of teaching, she said, “I don’t know if there’s any job I could ever do as satisfying. I also don’t know if there are any jobs as draining.”
The money helps, she said, “but it’s really that support from administrators, colleagues — but really from the public — that goes a long ways toward making those tough days a little easier.”
Friday’s salary report was a good news story, Podoll emphasized. Seeing the progress, she said, makes for a great end to another Friday.
McCorkle, meanwhile, looked ahead.
“Our next steps are to continue to keep moving forward, to continue to make sure the funding formula is fully funded, to make sure we are continuing to move that average target salary up,” she said.
The task is to continue the advocacy, or South Dakota will fall behind again. It’s also to make sure resources remain dedicated to the task, she said.
It took longer than two years for South Dakota to reach its crisis, McCorkle said.
“We aren’t going to get out of it in two years.”