In 2016, South Dakota set a goal to put more money into the K-12 public school system after years of ranking last in the nation for teacher pay.
The plan included a sales tax hike with new revenues directed to school districts to raise teacher salaries and be competitive with other states, and initially it was successful.
But five years later, progress has slowed and the state has not kept up with other states, putting South Dakota once again near the bottom nationwide in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.
More importantly, education officials say, the state has the lowest-paid teachers in the Great Plains region, which can lead some teachers to begin or extend their careers in neighboring states to make more money. School districts in the state already face difficulty in hiring new teachers, a situation that has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2019-20 school year, Wyoming, the top-paying Great Plains state, paid an average teacher salary of $59,786, almost $11,000 a year more than the South Dakota average of $48,984.
Now, some education officials and experts are seeking a revisit to the education funding conversation and are calling on lawmakers to re-address the funding formula or find ways to close the teacher pay gap with other states.
Those who have been part of the process say the initial salary bump created by the sales tax hike and the subsequent increases were not big enough to keep South Dakota competitive with other states that have also continued to increase teacher pay since then.
“Five years is a long time,” said Melody Schopp, who served as secretary of education under Daugaard and now works in education consulting. “We couldn’t have anticipated what things were going to be like today. Had we not done what we had done, we’d be even further behind.”
In the 2013-14 school year, average pay for a teacher in South Dakota was $40,023 and ranked 51st among all states and the District of Columbia. After the funding infusion from the sales tax increase, the state rose to 47th in average pay in 2017-18, but has since fallen behind other states again, with an average salary of $48,894 that is ranked 50th. Mississippi is the lowest in average teacher pay with an annual salary of $46,843; New York is the top-paying state in the nation with an average of $87,069.
On Sept. 27, the Teacher Compensation Review Board that produced an annual report on teacher pay, submitted its final 2021 report to Gov. Kristi Noem and the state Legislature, and the conclusion, largely, is that there’s no one way to solve teacher pay challenges.
“Continued progress on teacher salaries requires action on multiple fronts,” the report reads. “No single policy or effort will result in an all-inclusive solution to maintain a great educator workforce in South Dakota.”
The report goes on to detail the need to continue to make teacher salaries competitive, the likelihood that the teacher shortage will continue to increase, and that the state may face uncertain future impacts of inflation resulting from the pandemic.
The report points out that despite falling in national rankings, teacher pay in South Dakota has risen and the pay gap between the Rushmore State and other states has been reduced. In 2015, the gap between South Dakota and the 32nd state in terms of average teacher pay was $9,516 per year; in 2020, that gap had fallen to about $5,300.
Also, the report notes, South Dakota raised average teacher pay by 22.4% from 2014-2020 while the national average increase was only 13.3%, though other states clearly raised salaries from a higher rate to begin with.
The report shows that strong progress has made in what South Dakota pays new teachers. According to NEA data, the average starting pay for new teachers in South Dakota rose by almost 22% from $32,546 in 2016 to $39,594 in 2020; the state now ranks 26th in the nation for starting teacher pay. Still, Wyoming has the 11th highest average salary for new teachers at $46,558 a year.
Ultimately, officials said it will come down to the Legislature to decide if and how to modify the way and level at which it funds public schools.
“My future look would be to (ask) current leaders to say, ‘Do we have the courage to continue to fight this good fight for teacher salaries and for schools,’” said Wade Pogany, director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “Is this still a priority for South Dakota?”
Former Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law a half-cent sales tax increase that funneled nearly $70 million into schools.
Teacher salaries went up about 11 percent in the first year after the sales tax was implemented, bumping the state up to 48th out of 51 in the annual rankings from the National Education Association.
Even with that increase, the average salary still fell short of the $48,500 goal set by the state.
The goal both from the task force and the resulting legislation was to keep salaries increasing at a steady rate of either 3% or inflation annually, whichever was lower. That means by the 2020-21 school year, the state’s target average teacher salary was more than $51,300, according to data from the state’s teacher compensation review board.
The actual average salary, though, fell short of that target.
Between the 2016-17 school year — the year with the initial boost from the half-cent sales tax — and the 2020-21 school year, salaries increased just over 6.5%.
The actual average salary has fallen short of the state’s target each of the last five years, topping out at just shy of $50,000 for the 2020-21 school year.
Meanwhile, as South Dakota’s teacher pay increased, so did that of neighboring states.
“Certainly those around us saw what we were doing,” said Brian Maher, Blue Ribbon Task Force member, former Sioux Falls superintendent and current executive director of the state Board of Regents.
Over the past five years, the number of educator certificates processed by the South Dakota Educator Certification System has increased every single year, and overall has seen a more than 30% increase in that time.
However, South Dakota has also seen an increase in open teacher positions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of teacher openings in the state peaked at 551 in April 2021, more than 100 more openings than the most recent peak in 2017, according to data kept by ASBSD.
Meanwhile, the number of college students who pursue teaching degrees has held steady, but only about half of students who graduate in the state with a teaching degree go on to get a teaching certification.
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