“My goal is to have the starting salary for all Alabama teachers to be the highest in the Southeast by the end of my term,” Gov. Kay Ivey said during her 2023 State of the State Address last week. “To that end, I am proud to announce tonight that I am proposing a two percent pay raise for our teachers,” she continued.

This move comes amongst a broader bipartisan push nationwide to increase teacher starting pay.

But what does it mean for Alabama, and would increasing teacher pay improve the quality of public education that students receive?

Alabama ranked 24th in the nation in the 2020-2021 school year for the starting salary of a teacher, according to the National Education Association. Except for Florida and Louisiana, Alabama ranked ahead much of the Southeast as of 2021; however, this data does not include the 4% pay raise and changes to Alabama’s educator salary matrix that went into effect in 2022.  

But this is starting to change with growing teacher shortages. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders made teacher pay a top priority when she took office in January, vowing to increase starting salaries to $50,000 per year. That became a reality last week when Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law, giving first year teachers a roughly $15,000 salary increase.

Florida and Mississippi both passed teacher pay raises in 2022, though despite a more than 10% increase, some Mississippi teachers still have lower starting salaries than those in Alabama.

At the national level, the American Teacher Act, currently before the U.S. House of Representatives, would establish a minimum salary of $60,000 for every public school educator in the nation beginning with the 2024-2025 school year. Salaries would be adjusted for inflation in subsequent years. A similar bill has also been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Under the provisions of the act, the federal government would provide four-year grants to states to help cover the costs of the salary increases. It is unclear who would cover the costs after the initial four-year grant ends, or what strings the federal government might attach with the money.

The prospects of passing a federal minimum teacher pay law seem challenging at best. Nevertheless, it suggests that if Ivey intends to provide Alabama’s teachers with the highest starting salaries in the Southeast, $50,000 or more will be the benchmark.

According to the Alabama Education Association’s (AEA) bachelor’s degree salary matrix, a teacher with no previous experience will make $43,358 this year, not including benefits. Those with a master’s degree and 0-2 years of experience currently make just under $50,000. To reach a minimum of $50,000 for all teachers, starting salaries for educators with a bachelor’s degree would have to increase by almost 15.4% over the next four years. It is unclear how many teachers would be impacted by the increase, but it would likely cost the state tens of millions of dollars each year.

Would more experienced or more highly-educated teachers accept new teachers getting a more than $6,600 raise if they don’t get a corresponding increase? My guess is no, meaning that the overall costs of raising starting teacher pay could increase substantially. Last year’s 4% raise will cost the state an estimated $178.6 million annually. That total could reach more than $700 million per year if all teachers demanded a 15% raise.

Alabama’s teachers have received several raises over the past few years. Since 2018 the legislature has approved four pay raises for public education employees, totaling 12.5%. The only time a pay raise was not approved during that five-year period was during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened session of 2020.

On top of a 4% across the board raise, more experienced teachers also saw larger increases in 2022 through changes to the state’s salary matrix. For example, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 35 years of experience was set to receive a 20.8% raise this year. AEA called it “one of the best sessions we’ve had since 1983.”

While recruiting and retaining the best and brightest teachers is perhaps part of the equation in improving the quality of education in Alabama, it will probably play a minor role, if any.

Alabama’s minimum teacher salaries have increased by over 45% since the 1999-2000 school year. The state’s performance in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has shown little to no improvement over that same period. Despite the 12.5% raises since 2018, Alabama’s NAEP scores only improved by one point in one category from 2019-2022.

Without substantial structural reforms, simply increasing teacher pay is unlikely to improve the quality of a public education in Alabama.

Justin Bogie serves as Fiscal and Budget Reporter for 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: Commentary@1819News.com.