By Aedan Hannon
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Wyoming losing edge on teacher salaries

 

May 25, 2023

Recruitment more difficult as pay gap shrinks, experts say

CASPER - Wyoming's neighbors are catching up on teacher salaries and making it more challenging for school districts to recruit educators, researchers and school officials say.

The Joint Education Committee heard Wednesday during its first interim meeting in Casper from a handful of researchers and school leaders who pointed to lagging teacher salaries and a narrowing gap with other states as one of the key reasons schools across the state are struggling to fill vacancies, especially in border communities.

"We've lost the ability to draw the best and the brightest to our community," said Ryan Thomas, the superintendent of Uinta County School District No. 1. "That will impact the classroom, which we know has the biggest impact on instruction."

While Wyoming teacher salaries still sit above those of other peer states, the pay premium that the state's school districts have long used to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers and pull them in from other states has shrunk over the last decade, data shows.

In the 2010–2011 school year, Wyoming school districts paid teachers 26% more than surrounding states and North Dakota (which is used as a comparison because of its natural resource-driven economy), Christiana Stoddard, a public finance and labor economics professor at Montana State University, told lawmakers.

But that gap has shrunk by more than half, and some states like Utah and Nebraska have teacher salaries comparable to Wyoming.

Teachers in other states have seen their average salaries inch up about 1% to 2% per year, but Wyoming wages have remained relatively flat - in part because the state has done few cost adjustments that take into account changes like inflation over the last decade, Stoddard said.

The impact of lagging teacher salaries has been real for Wyoming school districts.

"Competition in Utah over the last two years, maybe three years, has totally changed," Thomas said. "We no longer can recruit out of the Utah job fairs. There is no interest in Wyoming."

It's a trend that can also be parsed out in the data. At the peak, Wyoming attracted roughly two-thirds of its teachers from other states. That ratio has fallen to one-half, a problem since enrollment in the University of Wyoming's College of Education has steadily declined over the last decade.

The issue of salary is particularly acute for Wyoming's border communities, which compete more closely with surrounding states for teachers.

Mark Perkins, an education researcher at UW, shared a new map with the panel that tracks school district salaries and other economic metrics. Though Wyoming is still more affordable for new teachers, starting salaries in places like Cheyenne and Evanston compare closely with those in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Vernal, Utah.

Laramie County School District No. 1, which serves Cheyenne, has 45 certified teacher openings it's looking to fill this year, 25 of them in special education, Margaret Crespo, the district's superintendent said Wednesday.

As a border community, the school district is not only competing with other schools in Wyoming, but also in Colorado. Crespo estimated that Laramie County School District No. 1 has received single-digit applications so far.

"We're headed into the salary conversation and we absolutely know that one of our neighbors will be offering $50,000," Crespo said. "... We're trying to keep up with salary benefits and compensation models that attract and retain."

WDE study

Perkins is the author of the study that has become synonymous with teacher attrition and retention since it was released last year.

In partnership with the Wyoming Education Association, he surveyed more than 700 teachers across the state about their feelings on teaching. The most startling statistic was that 65% of teachers said they would quit if they could.

The Wyoming Department of Education conducted its own survey of teachers as part of its Teacher Retention and Recruitment Taskforce launched earlier this year.

The results that Laurel Ballard, the Department of Education's innovation officer, shared with the committee largely confirmed Perkins' findings. The survey of nearly 4,000 teachers showed that one in five teachers reported they would likely leave teaching in the next year, while about one-third said they would likely leave in the next two years.

When asked how the state could best attract new teachers, they broadly responded that communities and school administrators need to value and appreciate teachers more, again reflecting Perkins' conclusions.

Higher salary was the top priority of those surveyed, with more than 75% of teachers responding that more money would make them want to stay.

According to a Department of Education memo, open-ended responses from the survey showed an overlap between teacher salaries and feelings of value and appreciation.

While teachers, school districts and education leaders identify money as one of the key areas where Wyoming is losing its advantage, the Department of Education's survey reiterated that it is just one of the factors affecting teacher recruitment and retention.

"Teacher satisfaction, and really even more so employee satisfaction, is really a combination of monetary factors, workplace factors and then internal factors," Perkins told the panel.

Teachers ranked stronger administrative support, behavioral support for students and greater respect after money in the Department of Education's survey.

As lawmakers weigh action on teacher retention and recruitment, Barbara Hickman, an assistant professor and the educational leadership program coordinator at UW, said the state needs to also think about the non-monetary considerations that attract teachers.

"You can go anywhere in the country and get a good job," Hickman said, referencing a newly graduated middle or high school math teacher. "So, what are we doing in Wyoming to attract those people here?"

"Health care matters and childcare matters and green space matters," she added.

This story was published on May 28, 2023.

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