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Kentucky education commissioner: State ranking 44th in starting teacher pay 'a crisis'

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A recent report from the National Education Association ranked each state in the nation in categories ranging from average teachers’ starting salaries to average education support professionals’ earnings. Kentucky ranked in the bottom ten states for both categories.

The state ranked 44th in starting teacher pay and 48th in education support professionals’ pay.

Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Jason Glass says the state’s ranking is troubling.

“It’s distressing, and it confirms what our teachers have been expressing to us for some time.” Glass said. “They’re falling behind in keeping up with middle class quality of life and standard of living in the state.”

The report says the average starting teacher salary in Kentucky is $37,373, almost $10,000 less than the estimated $49,324 cost of living for one adult and one child in an affordable metro area.

Glass said the stark difference between the two numbers creates a difficulty when recruiting new people into teaching, especially college-educated professionals. He said it’s been difficult to get young people to choose the teaching profession.

“All of the politically driven conversations around educators, and their pay, and the pension system, we can have all the political arguments that we want, but you can’t ignore the labor market. You can’t repeal the law of supply and demand,” the commissioner said.

Glass also added that, for long-time teachers, the incentive to stay and continue teaching is not as strong and many are choosing to cash out early on their pension and retire.

Kentucky already has been suffering from a teacher shortage, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Left unaddressed, Glass said, the situation could continue to get worse.

“Not only do we compete for other positions, other professional jobs in the state. We also compete with other states,” Glass said. “So unless we can make education competitively paid, we’re going to struggle with recruiting and retaining educators in Kentucky.”

While the starting pay for teachers in Kentucky may be at a considerably low level, the average teacher salary in Kentucky is reported to be $54,139. This puts the Commonwealth 36th in the nation by that metric. But, depending on the specifics of each district and an applicant's level of education, it could take years for educators to work up to a level that finally supports their cost of living. Glass says failure to keep up with the cost of inflation can cause educators to fall behind financially.

It’s not just teachers though that are feeling the squeeze of financial shortcomings. The NEA report also said Kentucky educational support professionals like school office workers, custodians and food service workers earned an average pay of $28,783 a year. That puts the state 48th in the nation. Glass said many of those ESP workers are being lost to higher paying jobs in the private sector.

“We’re seeing challenges with districts being able to operate their food service programs, being able to keep buildings adequately staffed for cleaning, hiring support positions that work with teachers in the classroom and one of the critical areas we’re seeing is in [bus] drivers.”

Glass said moving forward, keeping up with inflation will be a key part in keeping salaries at a liveable wage.

“It needs to be elevated out of a political conversation. It’s a labor market problem,” Glass said.

The commissioner believes the majority of the power to change the trajectory of teacher salaries in Kentucky falls on its legislators. He said lawmakers need to decide if educator pay is a priority for them.

“We have record surplus available in the state this past year and that will be available for some time going forward,” he said. “There’s all sorts of competing interests on those dollars, but I think our legislature is going to have to decide if they believe it is the crisis I think it is and then act to address it.”