New study says standardized pay for Alaska's teachers would be too expensive

If Alaska implemented a standardized salary schedule for its teachers, most rural school districts would have to pay their educators a lot more, said a new study completed for the state Legislature.

According to the pay schedule, Anchorage should pay it teachers 10 percent more. But in Southeast Alaska's Pelican City School District, it would mean a whopping 105 percent raise.

But ultimately, researchers advised against the pay schedule that they developed for the study. Even though it would help communities attract and retain highly-qualified teachers, it would simply cost too much, said the study by University Alaska Anchorage's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.

The pay schedule took into account student demographics, costs to travel to a hub, teacher turnover rates, climate and labor force participation, among a host of other factors.

"Frankly, the state can't afford to pay educators what our schedule says it should," said Diane Hirshberg, the center's director. Instead, the state must get innovative when it comes to education, she said.

"Given the state's current and future fiscal challenges, the status quo is not going to suffice for our rural schools," the study concluded.

The pay schedule detailed in the study would increase salary costs by about 15 percent across Alaska. It would require most rural school districts to offer salaries higher than their urban counterparts.

Pelican City School District would have to pay a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree about $85,853. Fairbanks would pay that teacher about $43,961 and Anchorage would pay $51,719, according to the schedule.

While Anchorage should pay it teachers 10 percent more, according to the pay schedule Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan could pay its teachers slightly less. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, teachers in Wasilla, Palmer, Meadow Lakes, Big Lake and Houston got paid just the right amount.

"Based on this analysis, it appears that Mat-Su School District is paying enough to attract teachers to teach in schools in their central communities, but not more than they need to," the study said.

Mat-Su would have to pay its teachers less than Anchorage School District under the schedule, the study said.

"This likely reflects a number of factors, including the increasing challenges that Anchorage faces around educating immigrants, English language learners, and students in poverty, as well as the relatively lower housing costs and high community amenities of the Mat?Su area," it said.

Researchers said that while the salary schedule accurately reflected teachers' preferences, they couldn't ensure that it would actually result in rural schools being able to attract and retain qualified teachers.

"Teachers decide where to work, and whether to stay or leave their school and district based on many factors in addition to salary," the study said.

Hirshberg said that the state must look at ways to improve working conditions for teachers in rural Alaska and then their salaries may not have to increase as much.

"In a lot of these rural communities, teachers are feeling like they are not supported," Hirshberg said.

The study also recommended further research around creating a merit-based pay schedule and that the Legislature not change the Alaska teacher tenure system. It should revisit that system after assessing how well school districts' new teacher evaluation system works, the study said.

The new study stemmed from the omnibus education bill passed in 2014 under former Gov. Sean Parnell.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, co-chaired the Sustainable Education Task Force that year, which recommended the analysis of teachers' salaries and benefits.

"What we heard from districts is that they were having to spend so much time on salaries and negotiations," she said.

She said lawmakers thought that state might be able to save money by implementing a standardized salary schedule, which would also give school district administrations more time to focus on children.

But "at first blush" it appeared that the study said that wouldn't be the case, she said. However, she said the study still provided information on the differences among Alaska's sprawling school system.

"It's better to understand the diversification we do have and why sometimes one-size doesn't fit all," she said.

Last year's omnibus education bill mandated that the state's Department of Administration present the Legislature with a written proposal for a salary and benefits schedule, including an evaluation of teacher tenure, no later than June 15, 2015.

The state Department of Administration posted the new study Monday. It will be presented to a Legislative committee Tuesday.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.