Brett Rowland | No need to set minimum salary for teachers

Brett Rowland | No need to set minimum salary for teachers

By BRETT ROWLAND

State lawmakers sometimes forget that public schools are governed by locally elected school boards.

Gov. Bruce Rauner recently vetoed a bill that would have set a statewide minimum teacher salary of $40,000 by the 2022-23 school year.

The bill's author, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, has said he will work to override the governor's veto this fall.

Existing state law puts the minimum teacher salary at $9,000. That law, which seems absurd today, went into effect in 1980. But it isn't needed.

Lawmakers said last spring that new teachers in Illinois made on average about $39,000 a year. And the average teacher salary in the state was $64,516 in 2017, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

But those salaries also largely depend on where in the state these teachers work. The cost of living in Chicago and the suburbs, for example, is significantly higher than downstate, so higher salaries are necessary.

State lawmakers shouldn't set wages for specific industries in general. And selecting a publicly funded industry with an influential voting bloc during an election year is an even worse choice. Pandering never looks good. What's next? Setting minimum salaries for municipal or township or county employees?

"(That) approach to teacher compensation both limits a school district's local control and imposes a significant unfunded mandate on school districts," the governor wrote in his veto message.

School boards agree that it's a bad idea.

"It is estimated that nearly half of the school districts in the state would be affected by such a new salary requirement," the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance wrote in a legislative update for members. "Any gains in funding due to the new Evidence-Based Funding Formula would be totally consumed by the new salary mandate in many school districts. Under such a law, the net result could actually hurt classroom teachers as school districts would be forced to reduce the teaching force in order to pay the higher salaries."

A shortage of teachers was one reason supporters touted for the mandatory minimum salary. But if a local school district is having a hard time recruiting enough competent teachers, its school board can decide to raise the starting salary to whatever is necessary.

And while there's a lot to be said for local control, the state is obligated to step in occasionally. I'm not talking about Rauner's half-baked plan in 2016 to turn control of Chicago Public Schools over to the state. More along the lines of the state takeover of nearly bankrupt Round Lake Unit School District 116 in 2002.

More specifically, the state must step in, as it did this year, to prevent abuses such as pension spiking, which local school boards were causing but the state was having to pay for. That makes sense. Setting a minimum wage doesn't.

Brett Rowland is news editor of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Brett at browland@ilnews.org.

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