By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
When it comes to pay raises for our educators, the state giveth and the state taketh away.
This year was supposed to be the first time our public educators received a true raise since 2008. Before that, the legislature cut educators’ and state employees’ pay by 2.5 percent (by making them pay more for their benefits), and tried to make up for it a couple of years later by giving 2 percent back.
They called it a raise, but educators were still bringing home a half-percent less than they were before the changes to their benefits.
Our state employees and both education and state retirees have not received one cent during that entire time! In fact, they got the pay cut but never received the 2 percent salary increase that educators were given a couple of years ago.
Finally, this year looked like it would be different (at least for active educators; retirees and state employees were still left out!).
But then the state’s PEEHIP Board – the board that oversees educators’ health insurance benefits – voted once again to increase educators’ contributions to the program. In effect, the PEEHIP board went around the legislature and erased the raise educators have just been given.
And what’s frustrating about this isn’t so much the money. Educators and state employees still have great benefits, even if they aren’t as good now as they used to be. And most educators and state employees wouldn’t mind paying a little more for those benefits if they had to, provided the increase in their benefits wasn’t as big or bigger than the increase in their pay checks.
What’s really damaging about this is the impact it has on educators’ morale.
According to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, about “13 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million teachers move schools or leave the profession every year.” Alabama has not been exempt from that national trend.
In the Huntsville City School system alone, the number of tenured educators who resigned between 2009 and 2015 increased by 225 percent! And that’s just the teachers who stayed long enough to earn tenure; it doesn’t include teachers who leave after the first two or three years.
The problem goes far beyond just trained, certified teachers leaving the profession. We are also seeing a nationwide massive shortage of educators as a result of fewer and fewer college students choosing a career in teaching.
Research shows that it isn’t that the next generation is less committed to their community or less interested in trying to make a difference. It’s that instead of trying to make a difference as a teacher, today’s college students would rather make a difference as a social worker, community organizer, working in public health, or serving in law enforcement or as a first responder, among others.
Today’s college students already see what teachers are feeling every day in the classroom. Both prospective educators and those already in the classroom look at the state of today’s public education system and ask themselves why they would want to be in a profession where they don’t feel valued, where there is more emphasis put on standardized tests than actual teaching, where the pay is already $10,000 a year less than other professions that require a similar level of education and certification, and where they see little-to-no support from state leaders?
When you take all of this combined, and you add in that as soon as the legislature passes a pay raise the PEEHIP board comes along and takes it away, it’s no wonder public educators are feeling discouraged, and so many are resigning or retiring.
Right now, all the emphasis in Montgomery is on the General Fund budget and the problems it’s facing. But if we don’t start showing more respect for our educators, retirees and state employees, and start standing up for them, we may soon find ourselves with very few left in those professions who are qualified and motivated to do the job.
If we want to avoid the kind of problems other states have seen (such as California, where they are having to issue emergency credentials to fill understaffed schools), then we need to start taking better care of our educators and our public school systems.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.