Minnesota teacher salaries don’t keep up


While lawmakers wrestle with a budget deficit and try to prepare the state for the 21st Century economy, they would do well to remember a very old adage: You get what you pay for.

Minnesota is a great place to live and we have a lot of smart people who live here, but we have no lock on hiring or retaining the high-quality teachers we need to guide our children into the future.

College students are having a hard time justifying the cost of an education versus what they will make as a starting teacher. Seen as a proportion of salary, only 41 percent of a first-year teacher’s income went to school debt in 1993, while that figure rests at 71 percent in 2007.

The reduction of the gap between debt load and starting teacher salary is no surprise to Melanie Reap, an education professor at Winona State University. She said it’s a concern among students.

“It definitely affects them,” she said. “If they’re truly worried about making enough money, I ask them if they’re willing to travel. There are other states that pay their teachers better than Minnesota.”

Starting teachers in Minnesota earned an average of $33,018 in 2007, 25th in the nation. In fact, Minnesota has trended strongly downward when ranked against other states in starting teacher pay.

While there are programs available to new teachers to forgive parts of loans or help pay them off, they are targeted at specific subjects such as science and math, or tied to teaching in areas such as high-poverty schools.

There are also many trends in play, including the rising cost of higher education. It’s a trend Reap acknowledges: “The debt load affects the flexibility of the programs we offer. There are many we’d like to offer but we don’t want our students here too long racking up the bills.”

The low starting salary scares off some prospective teachers, education experts say. The Minnesota Department of Education estimates half of all new teachers leave their initial positions within five years. Some leave the teaching profession, but many others simply leave for a teaching position in another district with better pay and benefits, leaving the previous position for another new teacher.

For many new teachers, the bottom line remains how much they will earn when they get a job, and how much of that will have to go to the banks to pay back loans. As of today, about 71 percent of what a new teacher makes is what they owe to banks.

There are many factors involved in determining the amount of loans a student accumulates, the salaries a teacher can attract, and what if anything a state government can do about it. But these charts and figures do point out several simple truths: Minnesota students are leaving college with a higher debt load, new teachers in Minnesota have to shoulder a proportionately large portion of that debt, and Minnesota is only average among the states when it comes to starting teacher salaries.

If Minnesota wants to pay the average amount to teachers who have to move to get better salaries, then we have already achieved our goals. If Minnesota wants students who can compete in the 21st Century workforce, it needs teachers who aren’t under the crushing burden of debt. You get what you pay for.