South Dakota teachers no longer earn the lowest salaries in the nation, but a new report says that without vigilance, the progress could reverse itself and make it more difficult to retain good educators.
This year, South Dakota teacher pay climbed to 48th among states - compared with last place - for the first time in 30 years, after the Legislature passed a half-penny sales tax to boost teacher salaries.
Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, said the state is slightly more competitive, but must still keep up or teachers will be lured away.
"Reaching or exceeding the average of our surrounding states," she said, "because that's where our educators look if they are considering a move based on salary."
South Dakota's average teacher salary increased by 11.8 percent during the 2016-17 school year - the largest increase of any state. Nonetheless, the Teacher Compensation Review Board found the average pay would have to increase by $8,500 a year to match the highest-paying states, and $4,600 to reach the middle of the pack.
Despite the progress in wages, many schools in the state still face hiring challenges. At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the report said, 50 full-time positions were unfilled, representing teaching positions at 78 schools in 39 districts. McCorkle said those positions will remain hard to fill without a sustained effort by policymakers to keep teacher salaries competitive.
"And we don't want to be down to where we were," she said. "We've made progress, we want to continue to make progress, because that's what our students deserve."
According to the report, while South Dakota's teacher salaries are now more regionally competitive, the state still has one of the lowest average teacher salaries in the nation - and, even when adjusted for cost of living, is lower than most surrounding states.
The report is online at sdlegislature.gov.