Alaska school districts that are remote and serve mainly students from low-income households need to pay substantially more than they currently do to attract and retain teachers, a study from University of Alaska researchers found.
Matthew Berman, a University of Alaska Anchorage economics professor, said that the study shows that compensation does matter when it comes to recruitment and retention — and that some districts can and do pay teachers more to offset other disadvantages like a remote location.
“Relatively advantaged districts are able to fill positions and retain qualified teachers fairly easily without offering high salaries, but then there are relatively disadvantaged communities that have a handicap and they can overcome some of that by compensating teachers more,” he said. “But the handicaps for some communities may be so large, it’s really unrealistic to expect that compensation alone could make up the difference.”
The study uses data from a contract the university had with the state’s education department during the administration of former Gov. Bill Walker. Berman said the researchers are currently taking a look at more recent data and finding similar, but magnified results after the pandemic.
The results of the study showed that compensation rates were adequate to hire and keep teachers in the state’s urban and suburban school districts. But to have equity in many rural communities, districts would need to pay substantially more.
Berman said he was surprised by the degree to which some schools may have to compensate teachers to make up for other challenges. He said if an average teacher salary is around $55,000-$60,000 a year, it could take a salary of up to $120,000 to recruit and retain teachers in a rural district.
“That’s just beyond the capacity of all rural districts, really, except possibly the North Slope Borough,” he said. He noted that they do pay teachers more there, though not in the $120,000 a year range, as far as he knew.
Study results said that one in five of the state’s schools would need to pay teachers 25%-50% more to hire and keep them, especially in the western and northern parts of the state.
Districts that cannot pay such high salaries need to look at other solutions that the study showed may lead to teacher retention, like improved working conditions.
“Achieving equity of teacher qualifications would likely require that policymakers and district leaders also implement non-compensation strategies for improving working conditions in high-need schools,” the study said.
He said a barrier to increasing teacher wages in rural districts is that basic operating costs can be significantly higher than in other areas. He said the foundation funding formula, the method the state uses to try to equitably fund school districts with different costs and challenges, doesn’t do enough for certain schools.
So even if the state’s school funding formula gives a rural school more money, it may not be enough to cover the higher operations costs and offer salaries that would be competitive for the region.
“Remote, rural districts are not able to pay their teachers enough. And the foundation does not provide enough resources for them to be able to do that,” he said, citing higher costs for fuel, food and maintenance. “They have to be able to use the money to compensate teachers.”
Berman said there are limits to what compensation can accomplish, too. For example, he said a signing bonus can help recruit a teacher, but doesn’t do much to retain them.
The study also showed some outlier schools that Berman said will be the subject of future publications. They are places that show high recruitment and retention of teachers even though they may not offer the highest salaries. He and his colleagues will be looking at what goes into success there in the coming months.
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