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Washington state has not provided a pay increase for teachers in six years, despite rising costs of housing, food, and gas. The McCleary decision mandates that the Legislature fully fund education, including sizable increases to salaries for teachers and all other K-12 staff. Reinstating cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) is the first step to providing competitive wages that both retain and attract quality educators in Washington state classrooms. The House budget sought to restore previously-suspended COLAs for teachers, but in the final compromise with the Senate, teachers lost.
COLAs help salaries keep pace with the rising cost-of-living so that teachers can make ends meet and provide for their families. In 2000, voters approved Initiative 732, which requires the state to provide annual COLAs to school employees. Despite the voter’s decision, the Legislature suspended teacher COLAs in eight out of 14 years.
As seen from the graph below, teacher salaries have stagnated, remaining far lower than they would have been had they been adjusted along with the rising cost of goods. In the current school year, the average teacher’s salary is more than $5,000 below where it would be if COLAs were in place.
The McCleary ruling requires the state to fully fund basic education by 2018. The State Supreme Court has made it clear that meeting the obligation includes adequately compensating teachers. Pointing to guidance by the Compensation Technical Working Group, the Court suggested that the state needs to invest at least $1 billion more per year above inflationary adjustments in order to bridge the salary gap. Yet, basic cost-of-living adjustments (which would have cost about $55 million to reinstate in the 2014 Supplemental Budget) have yet to be restored, and salaries were even cut by 1.9 percent during the 2011-13 biennium. Prolonging the suspension of COLAs has caused salaries to stagnate.
Inadequate pay makes it more difficult to retain quality teachers, which can have a negative impact on student learning. According to the Teacher Retention and Mobility Report for the Center for Strengthening the Teacher Profession, inadequate salaries are a major reason that school districts have a problem retaining teachers. Educators are more likely to leave the profession when they are not paid an equitable salary, which can negatively affect students and school performance.
While the final budget includes a modest increase in funding for textbooks and classroom supplies, teacher salaries are neglected. The Legislature must get serious about fully funding education, and reinstating COLA adjustments for teachers is an obvious place to start.