Equity advocates criticize Wolf’s plan to boost teacher salaries in Pa.

Feature for WHYY’s Keystone Crossroads, April 17 2019

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Visit Somerset County in mid-March and you’ll hear it everywhere — you’ve got to see it in the summer.

That’s when Confluence, population 834, really comes alive. The bed and breakfasts are booked with cyclists making their way along trails that stretch into Maryland and West Virginia. Scenic views and some of the best whitewater rafting in Pennsylvania abound. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is just a stone’s throw away.

But it’s a place with another, less proud, distinction — home to one of the lowest-paying school districts in the state.

Bounded by state game lands and the wrinkled curves of the Casselman River, Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District covers 100 square miles, but it has just one school. All 321 students — elementary, middle, and high school — learn in the same H-shaped building.

“Excellent and proud of it” is the school’s motto, and it’s blazoned on the wall of Jody Gary’s classroom. He’s been teaching math and science in the district for 27 years. When he was hired in 1992, his starting salary was $18,500.

“With college loans and living expenses, it was a struggle at first,” Gary said.

Both Confluence and Turkeyfoot are named for the place where the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers converge with Laurel Hill Creek, forming a three-pronged ‘Y’ that looks like a talon and gives the area its lifeblood.

But in winter, after the tourists leave, the bike shop closes, and so do most of the restaurants. The school, with 64 staffers, is the biggest employer in the immediate area.

Gary has seen his salary go up over the years, but that $18,500 remains on the books as Pennsylvania’s legal minimum teacher salary.

Schools aren’t actually hiring teachers at that rate, according to the state, but some are close.

Turkeyfoot, which has started teachers at $22,000, is one of five districts in the state where the average teacher earns less than $45,000.

But a new proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf would change that.

In one of the signature policy priorities Wolf laid out at the start of his second term, the governor called for a new $45,000 baseline for teacher salaries in the state.

“Our government has failed to address this injustice,” Wolf said during February’s budget address.

On average, classroom teachers in Pennsylvania make around $67,000 a year.

If the governor’s proposal goes into effect, more than 3,000 teachers around the state — many in rural districts like this one — would see their paychecks go up.

“Our teachers would jump up and down,” said Gary, who is also the local teachers union president. “We have some teachers with probably close to 15 years experience that are not at $45,000.”

But as much as some in the state are lauding the proposal as a move toward fairness, others are challenging it as a step away from equity.

The proposed funding is not tied directly to objective measures of student need, and some educators elsewhere in the state feel slighted.

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Photography by Dani Fresh