A bill that would link elementary school science teacher pay to what Washington legislators earn got a Tweet from the News Tribune’s Jordan Schrader and a short mention in Crosscut, but nothing more. Why? One reason is because there is no way the bill will pass, and the bill’s author acknowledges as much.
State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, introduced House Bill 2655, “Setting the salaries for members of the legislature,” on Jan. 23. The bill would require the Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials to set legislator pay at the same level as the “average elementary school science teacher.”
Right away, there is one problem with the language of the bill. Technically there is no such thing as an “elementary school science teacher.” Patty Glaser, Bremerton School District spokeswoman, said elementary school teachers certify as generalists. There is another issue that Central Kitsap School District spokesman David Beil pointed out, that because of declining enrollment the district hasn’t been hiring any teachers in any discipline.
All that aside, Seaquist introduced the bill to make a point. He said there has been an impetus to “start kids sooner in science.” So he is looking at, for example, a Central Washington University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education, but then a master’s degree in something like biology, as a good fit in an elementary school. “We want to go in the direction of highly qualified technical teachers, bringing real science to schools,” he said. “We all know we want to go there.”
One problem, he said, is the pay the state and local districts offer teachers.
The average pay for a fresh-out-of college teacher with just a bachelor’s degree is $34,188, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Add that master’s degree and the average starting pay jumps to $41,716. That’s not far from what legislators receive, $42,106 for what is technically a part-time job. But Seaquist points out that a legislator who lives more than 35 miles away from the capitol is also entitled to a $90 day per diem to handle living-away-from-home expenses.
Seaquist makes the additional point that even the near $42,000 starting teachers with master’s degree make does not compare with what they would make in the private sector. I used an automated salary calculator on payscale.com to come up with an estimate that a brand new research scientist would be paid $55,000 annually right out of college. That same program estimated the pay would be around $80,000 after five years.
When I first talked to Seaquist he was clear his bill wouldn’t pass, but that it would get a hearing. And that’s what he wants most, for legislators to be compelled to talk about teachers’ salaries.
“What I’m trying to do is add to the weight of the argument that we have to be fully funding our schools, as the court says,” Seaquist said. “I’m really concerned that the Legislature is not standing up to fully respond to the court’s order.”
That order comes from the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which declared that the state was not fully funding education as it was constitutionally required to do. The court gave the Legislature until 2018 to reach full funding and in mid-January determined that the Legislature’s first attempt to get there in 2013 was too small a step.
Seaquist would not limit the pay discussion to science teachers, but did so in this bill to illustrate how people with skills that are in high demand are underpaid in Washington schools. “I’m using the example of these high-demand, much-in-need teachers to point out that all of our teachers are underpaid,” he said.
UPDATE: Seaquist wrote to say he has asked the committee chairman to not schedule a hearing on the bill. He said he was mindful of the “rapidly growing workload” of the committee and asked it to be pulled.
Nonetheless, there are still two points he would make, and I’ll quote, “… a) our teachers are underpaid and b) we are having a hard time recruiting elementary school teachers with subject matter expertise, especially in the science and math areas. Although the school district gave you the technical answer “we don’t have elementary science teachers” the fact is that we are rapidly moving to STEM education in our elementary schools and these hands-on, research Master’s degree teachers are very valuable. I visited last summer at CWU’s ed school where they are developing new approaches to developing these teachers.”
So while the current reality is that elementary school teachers are generalists, Seaquist believes there will be a call for more elementary school teachers with a science background of some kind. This bill was designed to get legislators discussing that, even if he never expected it to pass.
And to answer one question, this is not the first time I’ve seen a legislator propose a bill knowing full well it would not pass. Talking about things is some of what legislators are paid to do. A bill can be akin to an idea in a brainstorming session, something that doesn’t get accepted on its face, but can be the spark for the ultimate solution.