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Tuesday, September 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Neal Kirby: Pay rural teachers urban-size salary

Neal Kirby

The Washington Supreme Court ruled in its McCleary decision on school funding that salaries are part of the basic education that the state must fund.

The court also ruled local school districts shouldn’t be providing those salaries. Many districts provide less than a couple thousand dollars in additional pay, but some richer districts have added over $20,000 yearly per teacher. Others are all across the board.

Does the state now pick up the bill for the extra pay districts are giving teachers from local revenues, or do the highest-paid teachers need to take pay cuts? Should the state provide uniform salary funding statewide or should the state base salaries on regional costs of living?

Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of House Appropriations Committee, wants to tie teacher salary allocations to regional costs of living. He proposes a regional state salary funding plan that gives more state money to higher-cost areas to replace the extra pay now given by school districts.

One similar proposal would pay Snohomish and King county teachers 8 percent more than the base. Pierce County teachers would have received 2 percent more than the base. The rest of the state received less.

Hunter assumes the higher pay in urban areas is needed to keep teachers, but this isn’t supported by research. Despite anecdotal stories of teachers leaving urban areas due to costs, state and national research of teacher attrition shows urban areas with the least teacher turnover. Attrition is higher in rural areas and, when teachers leave, it’s most likely to find a greater chance of professional success elsewhere.

The U.S. Department of Education, in a 2004 study, “Attracting, Developing, and Retaining Effective Teachers,” reported teachers “prefer to work in schools with large concentrations of relatively high-income, low-minority, high-achieving students with lower discipline issues and more parent support.” Teachers gravitate to where better resources provide lower class sizes, better facilities, and more-per-student counselors, specialists, educational assistants, and other support staff to assist classroom teachers.

The Washington Office of Financial Management, in 2000, in “A Review of K-12 Regional Cost Issues,” reported housing was more costly in urban settings, but there was no evidence it led to greater teacher turnover.

Two other Washington studies done in 2005 and 2006 by the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession found the largest urban schools had the lowest teacher turnover, and Central Washington had the highest. Central Washington also has lower achievement scores, the lowest levies, and the highest percentages of low-income and minority students.

Because Washington’s tax structure is the most regressive in the country, poorer areas also have fewer resources. Toppenish would need to pass a local levy tax rate 10 times that of Mercer Island to collect the same per-student school levy funds. With high poverty – 88 percent of the students qualify for the free meal program – that’s a tall order.

Toppenish collects $311 per student from its 2015 levy with a $2.13 tax rate while Mercer Island collects $3,048 with a $1.43 tax rate. To collect the full 28 percent levy allowed, the owner of a $100,000 home in Toppenish would have to pay more taxes than the owner of a $1 million home in Mercer Island, even with current level of levy equalization.

Cost of living is an issue if focused on housing, but working conditions are worse outside of King County where levies are substantially lower. Equal state funding for teachers in poorer districts is a simple matter of fairness. The poorest taxpayers make the greatest tax effort in our state. They deserve comparably paid teachers for their children.

Hunter’s proposal seeks to guarantee equal buying power for teachers in King County. That’s not the state’s paramount duty. Getting a quality teacher and comparable educational services in every classroom is.

Whatever state salary formula is used, it should be applied equally for all teachers in the state. It’s a matter of equity in both taxation and education.

Neal Kirby is a Centralia School Board member, former principal of Inchelium High School, and former state representative from the 7th Legislative District in northeast Washington.
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