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Bill raising teachers' salaries stalled

Pennsylvania Legislative Service

A push to raise the state’s minimum teacher salary has become a bipartisan effort, but it appears to not be enough to ensure a key piece of Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal will make it into the final version of the spending document.

House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor (R-York) said he would be “very surprised” if the plan, which would raise the minimum pay for teachers from $18,500 to $45,000, made the cut in the final version of the budget, which observers expect to be completed in the coming weeks.

This comes after a separate bill was released last week largely mirroring the plan unveiled by Wolf in his budget address earlier this year. The governor has requested $13.8 million to make the raise happen for over 5,000 teachers throughout the state.

At least seven Republicans have signed on to support the legislation, including Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne), who has authored the bill. Her co-prime sponsor is freshman Rep. Kyle Mullins (D-Lackawanna), who argues the idea is one which should earn bipartisan support among all members.

Mullins said he was “cautiously optimistic” that it would wind up in the budget.

“Republicans and Democrats, they send their kids to the same schools and just want the best for their school children,” he told The PLS Reporter.

But no shortage of top Republicans have expressed concerns that the proposal could create unintended consequences. Saylor and others argue that while the initial pay raise would be a funded mandate, future effects on teacher pay and pensions would not be.

This could mean local districts would have to raise property taxes in order to fill in the gap.

“I think that’s a real concern that members that live in those districts, as well as the rest of us, will have as to being accused by local government authorities that here we are, Harrisburg is mandating something that we’re not going to fund,” Saylor told The PLS Reporter. “We may fund the $13 million but we’re not funding the other increases that it is going to cost.”

But Mullins argued that by giving the districts $13.8 million directly, they will be able to use that money to account any costs incurred farther down the line. He also pointed to data from the last time the state raised the minimum salary in 1989, which he said did not significantly change the salary picture for other teachers.

“This proposed infusion from the state budget into that base appropriation … would essentially condense the salary schedule and add more state money into the district,” he said. “And that’s good for everyone, everyone employed there and for the students. So, if the local doesn’t need to worry about bargaining to raise the salary for the first few steps, they can direct that money to the middle of the salary schedule. So no one loses, everyone wins.”
Other concerns exist about the proposal, even from more liberal lawmakers. Those representing more urban districts point to the fact that many of the schools receiving dollars to give teachers a raise also benefit from the state’s current “hold harmless” provision, which does not take enrollment changes into account in determining funding.

The administration has insisted, however, that these are two different conversations.

"The governor's proposing additional dollars that would help increase the salaries for the lowest paid teachers in the commonwealth," Education Secretary Pedro Rivera told the Senate Appropriations Committee in March. "Student population impacts how many teachers that will be on staff."

Mullins argued that a wide range of districts would be affected by the proposal. That includes the Scranton School District in his district, which would receive over $365,000 under the proposal.

“It’s a rural, suburban and urban problem,” he said. “Teachers currently in the classroom making less than $45,000, 76 percent are women, 26 percent have master's degrees and the student loan burden that goes along with that. And 20 percent are special education teachers. So those demographics run the gamut across the state, urban to rural.”

Republicans have underscored that they are not opposed to giving teachers a raise, just that they would like to explore other avenues of doing so. Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), a Senate Appropriations member, has suggested that a grant program or giving bonuses to top performing teachers might make more sense than Wolf’s proposal.

“The proposal, as it was highlighted during the budget address and in the budget documents, it's hard to see a path forward,” he said in March.

Noting the provision was a priority for House Democrats, Mullins said he would be open to compromise.

“I think June should always be a month of compromise and a month of results,” he said. “I certainly believe that there should be an appetite for compromise if that is the way to get this across the goalline.”

But as Republicans hammer out a counter-offer to Wolf’s opening budget salvo, which will be delivered to the governor in the coming days, Saylor said he did not envision the teacher pay raise making the cut.

“I’d be very surprised,” he said.

June 11, 2019