AUGUSTA — Maine’s K-12 teachers would earn at least $40,000 a year under a bill endorsed 7-2 Tuesday by lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education Committee.
Differences over how to pay for that increase, estimated at about $1 million annually, split the vote and led some education organizations, including the Maine School Management Association, to oppose the bill.
But supporters said the cost isn’t sufficient reason to oppose the bill. Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, said many Maine teachers are due to retire soon, and a minimum salary would help recruit quality candidates to replace them.
“If we feel like this is the right thing to do, we fight the fight,” she said. “This is long-term thinking and a long-term benefit to our state.”
The bill, L.D. 1370, would also raise academic requirements for teachers in Maine. Those changes include requiring teachers to increase their student teaching time from 15 weeks to 24 weeks, and have a minimum 3.0 grade average in college.
The bill’s author, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said Tuesday that the salary minimum is modeled on previous legislation, passed in 2005 during the Baldacci administration, that set a minimum teacher salary of $30,000 a year. Under that law, the state sent money to districts to make up the difference between what the districts paid some teachers and the $30,000 minimum. The state funding stopped in 2012-13, when the supplement was eliminated in a cost-cutting move under the LePage administration.
Millett’s bill, which does not stipulate how the state would pay for the higher salaries, now goes to the Appropriations Committee to determine how and whether to fund it.
According to state Department of Education officials, there are about 150 Maine teachers who are paid less than $40,000 and it would cost about $1.1 million to fund the bill, using 2014-15 data.
The salary for the average starting teacher in Maine with no experience and a bachelor’s degree is $32,528.
The average national starting salary for a teacher is $37,054 and 13 states and the District of Columbia have average starting teacher salaries higher than $40,000, according to 2014-15 salary data collected by the National Education Association.
Maine is one of only four states with a legislated minimum salary, but a dozen others have a legislated salary schedule, which has the same effect, according to the NEA.
For all classroom teachers, Maine’s average salary is $50,017, compared to the national average of $57,379 and $68,754 in New England, according to the education association.
Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said she opposed the bill because she feared that the funding, even if the state starts out providing it, would eventually fall to communities, as it did with the $30,000 minimum salary.
“We all know it’s probably going to happen again,” she said. Superintendents in Washington County have told her they struggled to meet salary requirements after the state gap funding ended.
“Although (the superintendents) think this (bill) is admirable, they think it’s going to put them in the hole further,” Maker said.
Supporters said they wanted to push for the higher standards and higher pay, even if it would be a challenge to find funding.
“If we think this is a good idea, I don’t think we stop it here. We give it a shot,” said Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono.
In earlier testimony to the committee, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Principals’ Association said they approved of the intent of the bill but could not support it because they thought the salary minimum would eventually drive up costs for local districts. The bill is supported by the teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:07 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016 to clarify the changed requirements for teachers.