Study: Many Alaska teachers underpaid, but pay isn’t everything

Many Alaska school districts don’t offer high enough salaries to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. That’s according to a new study that looks at a possible statewide teacher salary schedule.

But researchers found that a statewide pay schedule would be too expensive, and wouldn’t do enough to solve Alaska’s teacher retention problem.

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A first grade class lines up outside of Dillingham Elementary School, spring 2015. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)
A first grade class lines up outside of Dillingham Elementary School, spring 2015. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)

About 65 percent of teachers in Alaska come from out of state. In recent years, Alaska school districts have had a harder time recruiting new teachers.

And the state also has relatively fewer “highly qualified” teachers – meaning those with specialized training in their subject area – than other states.

In 2014, former governor Sean Parnell addressed these issues in an education bill that called for several studies.

In one, the UAA’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research (CAEPR) was tasked with coming up with a standardized teacher salary schedule that some hoped would save the state money. CAEPR director Diane Hirshberg led the study.

“We want the best possible teachers in our schools,” says Hirshberg. “So one of the questions we had was, ‘What do you need to pay in order to be able to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, but without overpaying?”

To figure out this magic salary number for different places throughout the state, the researchers looked at cost of living factors in each school district:

“What does it cost to fly to and from community?” asked Hirshberg. “What’s the distance from a hub community or from Anchorage or Fairbanks? What are the number of degree heating/cooling days?”

They also looked at teacher turnover data for each district. And putting all these factors together, Hirshberg’s team calculated how much each district should be paying in order to keep teachers.

There was only one district they determined is paying just the right amount. “The Mat-Su Central area – so, Palmer, Wasilla, Knik – they seem to have hit that spot where they have pretty much 100 percent highly qualified teachers who are staying with their current salary schedule,” says Hirshberg.

The study found teachers are overpaid in just three districts – Fairbanks, Juneau, and Sitka. Everywhere else, schools are not paying enough, the study found.

The study found the Bristol Bay Borough and Dillingham school districts should be paying about 43 percent more than they currently do, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough and Southwest School Districts should be paying nearly 70 percent more.

In the Pelican School District in Southeast, a standardized schedule would call for salaries to more than double.

In the end, the researchers did not recommend the state go with a standardized pay schedule like this. For one, Hirshberg says, it would be too expensive. And it would take fiscal decisions away from local school boards.

“To have the state say to one community, ‘you need to raise your salaries that much,’ might really place them in a terrible position vis-à-vis meeting heating bills,” says Hirshberg.

Parnell’s bill also asked the Center to evaluate tenure, which Hirshberg says gets a bad rap. There’s a connotation that tenured teachers can get away with anything without fear of losing their job.

“And that’s just not the case,” says Hirshberg. “The tenure laws in Alaska are really due-process laws. They say if you have been deemed a successful teacher by having been retained to the start of your fourth year, then you earn tenure. And at that point it means that you cannot be dismissed without due cause… But teachers can be dismissed. There is a burden on administrators that they must document the reason for that dismissal.”

Another reason to keep tenure, Hirshberg says, is that it actually saves money on salaries. The study determined that teachers can be paid significantly less as long as they have the promise of tenure.

“The average teacher would need more than a 50 percent salary increase to accept giving up tenure, or changing to 5-year contracts, so it is about $36,000 dollars a year.”

Ultimately, Hirshberg says, the data show that keeping good teachers is about more than numbers on the contract. The study recommends the state look into factors that help new teachers feel more supported. That could involve building better teacher housing, for example, or providing more professional development.

“If some of that work happened, it might change the calculation in the long run,” Hirshberg says. “So that instead of saying, ‘We need to pay teachers 80 percent more,’ maybe we need to pay them just 30 percent more, but now we’ve created working conditions where they’re much more likely to feel successful and want to stay.”

The study has been published and presented to the House Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. It recommends that lawmakers revisit issues of pay and tenure after assessing how well the state’s new teacher evaluation program works. That could be a few years down the road.

The Department of Administration says the study cost the state $93,000 dollars.