Teacher pay – and the need for additional solutions

by Bill Powers

I intend to be following energy and educational issues during the 2015 legislative session. The big issue for education this year is supposed to be teacher salaries. One suggestion is to charge a 1% sales tax during the summer months. As far as I can tell, no bill reflecting this change has actually been put forward. There are bills, SB 53 and SB 54, that propose a 2% increase in funding for education and special education. DRA will be sponsoring a net metering bill. Again, as far as I can tell, no specific bill has been put forward yet.

Regarding teacher salaries in SD, the arguments for the increase are difficult to document. The arguments center around the difficulties some districts have in filling positions. But these difficulties are region wide. Education World reports that the problem is nationwide, the problem is exacerbated in rural areas. Nationwide, large numbers of teachers leave the profession after only a few years. Additionally, there are significant shortages in certain content areas, like math, science, and special education. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reports the problem is more complex that simply looking at starting salaries or average salaries. They consider the importance of the rate of salary change over the course of a teaching career, and the importance of the cost of living. South Dakota starting salaries are amongst the lowest in the nation. It’s average teacher salary is the lowest in the nation, almost $8000 below North Dakota’s. The cost of living in South Dakota is similar to that in neighboring states. So the cost of living is not a facile means of accounting for the lower salaries. Still, NCTQ reports that a more detailed cost of living analysis of teaching salaries over the course of their careers places Fargo, Saint Paul, Omaha, and Minneapolis far superior to Sioux Falls. What is interesting, however, is that the very same analysis places Sioux Falls as superior to Denver, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

It is not easy to make a facile analysis of the data. It is clear South Dakota salaries could stand to be higher, especially relative to some of its neighboring states. But it is not salaries alone that explain the shortage of teachers, especially of science, math, and special ed. It is clear that there are special problems nationwide luring teachers to rural areas and
into certain fields. There are many complex factors responsible for the teacher shortage. Consequently, we ought to be looking at more comprehensive solutions to that shortage. While it can’t hurt raising teacher salaries, it
is clear that it will not solve the problem facing South Dakota schools.


  1. Steve O'Brien says:

    Bill, whenever I read that there are many complex factors responsible for the teacher shortage, two questions come up: 1) what exactly are those factors? and 2) how much are those other factors in play as causes for the shortage we are facing.

    Too often I think real discussion of the problem of low salaries gets dismissed by the mere utterance of the phrase “other factors.” Certainly here are “city-folk” that have no interest in working in rural areas; I would never contend that salary is the only issue, but I feel quite reasonable saying it is the biggest. When ND needed people to work in its oilfields (in living conditions that are not at all ideal), it got workers by offering high pay. We can point to plenty of other industries that successfully used pay incentives to draw in a workforce.

    Even those who say salary is not the only drawing tool seem to be remiss improving those “other factors” to draw in teachers. I hope our state doesn’t get to the point of saying that it isn’t salary, so we will do nothing to help students receive the education they deserve from high-quality professionals.

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