Teacher salary debate needs bipartisanship

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal to increase, to $45,000, the minimum salary for the state’s public school teachers.

However, what also must be at the forefront of discussions, going forward, are the potential ramifications for taxpayers stemming from each option available — beyond the do-nothing option.

Wolf and other proponents of the increase — an increase that would cost the state $14 million initially and have as-yet-undetermined financial impacts for local school systems over the long term — envision that the beefed-up starting pay would help recruit and retain the best and brightest young teachers available.

Pennsylvania is said to be experiencing a teacher shortage, and low starting salaries in some areas of the commonwealth are regarded as contributing to that unwanted situation.

“To recruit and retain the best and brightest to teach, Pennsylvania needs to pay these teachers what they are worth,” said Chris Lilienthal, assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teachers union. “That’s what this proposal is all about.”

But those questioning an across-the-board starting-salary increase aren’t out of line in suggesting that there might be a better way to put to work the $14 million that the governor is proposing to allocate. Those thinking in that way see benefits equal to or greater than those that would be derived under what Wolf hopes to do.

During a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday, Senate Education Committee Majority Chairman Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, proposed distributing the money in question as grants to school districts to give school systems flexibility to develop individual plans aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers.

In the House of Representatives on Monday, Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, envisioned a “window” for unwanted court cases resulting from consequences that might be brought about by the governor’s plan. In addition, Saylor expressed concern about possible scenarios in which local-level school taxes might “go way up” if Wolf’s plan were implemented.

But Lilienthal, of the PSEA, downplayed Saylor’s observations, saying that in 1988, the last time the salary law was revised, negative ripple effects that some opponents predicted did not materialize.

The PSEA official predicted that there would not be any — or at least not many — negative ripple effects this time, either.

According to state statistics, only about 3,100 of the commonwealth’s approximately 140,000 teachers and school professionals currently are paid less than $45,000 annually, while the average classroom teacher salary statewide is just above $67,500.

Under his plan, Aument said, a district could decide to give preference, for example, to attracting teachers to teach specific subjects, or offer bonuses to retain highly effective instructors. He said that would avert ripple impacts on existing collective bargaining agreements.

Aument said he welcomes a bipartisan discussion regarding the compensation issue, and that attitude is commendable.

Bipartisan debate offers the best chance for achieving a conclusion manageable for the coffers of the state and local school districts, as well as achieving a conclusion fair and reasonable from the perspective of the educational community.

At the same time, the wallets and pocketbooks of taxpayers must be protected, while protecting their desire for the best schools possible.

This issue then is much broader than Wolf’s minimum-pay proposal alone, but doing nothing probably should be the first option to be ruled out.