Teacher pay in Delaware: Good enough to recruit and retain?
When it comes to salary – is it good to be a teacher in the First State? And can Delaware school districts find enough good teachers at a time when interest in entering the profession appears to be waning?
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt and Brooke Schultz of the Delaware State News dig into these questions in the first story collaboration between our two organizations.
When she decided to pursue teaching in Delaware, it wasn’t about the money for Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association.
“We all know that no one gets paid big bucks being an educator,” she said. “You think about what your passion is and where you can help students the most.”
In fact, Ingram lists numerous factors above salary: deciding where you want to live, where to raise a family, where your kids will go to school — and the students you want to serve.
“And then, of course, you want to think about my salary and my benefits and things like that, but I think it's a larger picture, not just money, money,” she said.
"Many more teachers these days are mission driven. They want to work with communities where they can make a difference." - Gary Henry, dean of UD's College of Education and Human Development.
Ingram reflects a trend noticed by Shelley Rouser, chairperson of the education department at Delaware State University, and Gary Henry, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development.
Rouser agreed, noting that the traditional motivations for teaching are changing.
“It could be because of their own experience in school not being the ideal experience, being committed to creating a different kind of culture, creating different opportunities for children,” she said. “Many have motivations grounded in social justice that lead them to choose teaching.”
For two of the state’s largest universities, making sure potential teachers find their way into classrooms is front of mind, as interest in teaching seems to be waning.
UD certifies about 227 teachers on average each year, Henry said, citing data the department has collected for three years. But the department is seeing a decline in interest, he said.
In contrast, DSU has seen about a 20 percent growth since 2015 in its educational department. Approximately 300 students are currently enrolled, Rouser said, “which is a good trend when you consider the fact a lot of states are seeing a decrease with the number of teachers.”
Rouser said the effort to train more teachers is needed.
“We’re working actively to increase that,” she said. “The demand is so great in Delaware.”
While salary may not be top of mind for all educators, it’s still part of the puzzle, and it’s a factor in whether professionals choose Delaware.
COMPETING ACROSS STATE LINES
In 2019, the average teacher in Delaware earned approximately $64,910, according to data released by the state in mid-2019 that provides figures from 2015 to 2020.
Over the last five years, Brandywine, in northern New Castle County, has remained among the public school districts with the top average educator salary. It was $74,550 there in 2019.
Woodbridge, in western Sussex County, has remained among the districts with the lowest average salary, at $55,868, in the same year.
While those districts differed by nearly $19,000, others in Delaware fell somewhere in the middle. For example, the average teacher salary in 2019 was $68,046 in Cape Henlopen, $56,600 in Caesar Rodney and $58,506 in Smyrna.
"I can't say that [salary is] the end-all, be-all for students. But Delaware's salaries are not competitive with other surrounding states." - Shelley Rouser, chairperson of DSU's education department.
The average entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree will earn $41,000 in the state in their first year, according to Henry. Some districts, like Indian River in southeastern Sussex County and Christina, at schools in the City of Wilmington, pay their entry-level teachers more — at close to $46,000.
Rouser said. “For a young person, these salary differences can be enticing when you’re leaving college and got some debt and have a New Jersey offer that can be $10,000 more than in Delaware.”
Kristin Dwyer, director of legislation and political organizing for Delaware State Education Association, noted that it is important for the state to find parity with the closest counties across state-lines in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“If a teacher can decide she wants to work in a rural school with these types of students, and there's a decision to get paid $10,000 more in a district that's eight miles away from her house, rather than the district that she's in, she's more than likely going to go right across the line and travel the eight miles to work for the $10,000 more,” Dwyer said.
Henry at UD pointed out that many districts in Delaware don’t extend job offers to teachers until much later in the year than other states.
“Our teacher candidates will start getting offers from Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey in January and February,” he said. “If you’re a college senior and you get a job offer, it’s hard to resist and wait to see if there’s an offer in Delaware.”
Rouser — who graduated from DSU and faced the same conundrum when she began her teaching career, ultimately ending up in Virginia — noted that districts have improved in that area. But if the offer comes faster, and seems like a higher salary figure than Delaware, it’s hard to ignore.
“It’s important for us to break it down and have young people understand those factors, like cost of living,” she said. “It may look like more, but there are not many places where teachers are at the top of the scale in salary.”
Patrik Williams, superintendent of the Smyrna School District, said that Delaware’s teacher salaries are “in the middle of the pack” compared to other states. But with low property taxes compared to neighboring states and no sales tax, Delaware has an appeal, he said.
“Based strictly on salaries [being] middle of the pack, that creates a challenge,” he said. “It's never really been an issue for Smyrna, getting teachers and keeping them here. Attracting and hiring good folks and getting them to come across state lines presents a challenge.”
The Brandywine School District is among those that consider out-of-state districts competition for teachers.
Executive Director of Human Resources Kim Doherty and Chief Financial Officer Jason Hale said they keep track of salaries in Unionville-Chadds Ford, Garnet Valley, Kennett Square and Chichester School Districts in Pennsylvania; Cherry Hill Public Schools and other districts in southern New Jersey; and Cecil County Public Schools in Maryland.
An entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District makes $50,180 this year, higher than any district in Delaware. A comparable teacher makes $48,355 in Garnet Valley, $49,000 in Kennett Square, $50,000 in Cherry Hill and $48,232 in Cecil County.
Stephen Guthrie, superintendent of the Sussex Technical School District, where the average teacher salary was second only to Brandywine in 2019, said one teacher in his district recently moved on for the promise of a higher salary in Maryland.
“We lost a teacher to Anne Arundel County last year, a wonderful math teacher,” he said.
An entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree and standard professional certificate earns $47,836 this year in the Anne Arundel School District.
Factors other than salary can also drive where educators teach. When the notion of keeping teachers within Delaware arose at the Joint Finance Committee hearing on Public Education this month, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting responded to concerns about requiring teachers who are certified in out-of-state institutions to take a test before teaching in Delaware.
“We need some verification when someone comes from out of state that they have met some criteria, so that when we bring them into our schools, we want them to be able to teach our students and literally earn their pay,” she said. “We're more concerned about the quality of what we're getting.”
She added that this criteria is already woven into in-state schools, but the state is looking at a “a reciprocity arrangement” with neighboring states.
“[Meaning] that if they have something that is a culminating verification, some kind of assessment that will verify that they were, for example, capable of teaching in Pennsylvania, that we will be able to accept that for Delaware,” she added.
Rouser at DSU noted that, nationally, teachers are likely to teach within 19 miles of where they went to school.
In 2017, she said, 70 percent of DSU graduating teachers joined Delaware schools. In 2018, she noted that number dropped slightly, to about 60 percent.
At UD, about 82 percent of Delawareans who graduated from the education department stay and teach in Delaware schools, Henry said. Only 24 percent, however, of the out-of-state students stay to teach in Delaware.
“How do you get them to know Delaware?” Rouser said. “A lot of them are going home because of the comfort. Delaware has many facets to it. If a student is leaving because they’ve never gotten out of Dover, or have been up north in New Castle County, but they’re from a place more rural, if that’s what they’re gravitating to want to go back to, there are places in Delaware that feels like home and looks like home. If we can figure that out, that will be helpful, too.”
VYING FOR CANDIDATES WITHIN THE STATE
Even within Delaware, there can be a disparity between districts — especially as teachers progress through steps on the salary scales.
Most public school teachers’ salaries in Delaware are paid with state and local contributions. Both state and local salary shares are based on the teacher’s years of experience and education level.
The state share of public teacher salaries in Delaware is set by the state operating budget bill. Last year public school teachers secured a 2 percent raise for Fiscal Year 2020. Gov. John Carney has requested another 2 percent raise for state employees, including teachers, for the FY 2021 state budget.
The local share varies by district based on tax base, the success of tax referenda for district operating budgets and each district’s contract with its local teachers’ union. Some teachers have federally funded positions.
Locally, teacher unions bargain for percent increases in the district contribution to educator salaries, along with issues such as health care benefits and planning time. Teachers can earn more through Extra Pay for Extra Responsibility, such as advising a student club or coaching an athletic team.
Because each district has a different local union with its own contract length and tax base, each district has unique salary schedules and wages.
Starting salaries remain relatively close between districts, but the figures diverge as educators move up the schedule. An educator with 17 years of experience and a master’s degree earns $85,324 in Brandywine, compared to $69,352 in Woodbridge. In Appoquinimink, a teacher in their 17th year of teaching with a master’s would earn at least $76,905, compared to $90,103 in Christina’s Wilmington schools.
Appoquinimink School District Human Resources Director Stan Spoor noted his district, in southern New Castle County, lags behind other districts in the county when it comes to funding.
“The amount of money through taxes that we are able to bring in is significantly lower than our neighbors to the north,” he said.
In a December referendum — which passed by a 60 percent margin — Appoquinimink, in part, sought funding for competitive wages.
Heath Chasanov, superintendent of Woodbridge School District, noted Woodbridge tries to keep salaries aligned with nearby districts, such as Milford, Laurel and Seaford.
“But there are districts in the state that we can't touch,” he said. “Because of our property tax base, there's no way we can compete with some districts. And you can see that disparity in salaries as you work your way down the state.”
ATTRACTING TEACHERS IS ABOUT MORE THAN JUST SALARY
When Tina Knotts recalls why she became a teacher more than a decade ago, she thinks of her own teachers.
“My kindergarten teacher was really inspiring, as were several of my others. But she really sticks out in my mind,” she said.
The fifth-grade inclusion classroom teacher at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School in the Milford School District said she considered going into nursing -- and she admitted she would likely be earning more if she had pursued that route. But said school-based schedule ended up being more important to her than salary.
“The actual huge thing for nursing for me would have been working like three days on and then having the four days off, or vice versa, for days on end,” Knotts said. “Having a family, you kind of want to have that time off. With teaching, it's five days a week, which is nice because it matches the kids’ time.”
Early in her teaching career, Knotts moved from Providence Creek Academy, a charter school in Clayton, to the Woodbridge School District, which she said brought a significant increase in salary. She said she later took a pay cut to join the Milford School District.
"While other people may look around for the salary, the work environment to me is more important." - Teacher Tina Knotts, Milford's Ross Elementary School
“I originally wanted to get into Lake Forest,” she said. “That's where I graduated from. But I student-taught at Milford, so getting back to Milford was really big for me because … that's kind of where I started with my teaching.”
Last year the average teacher in Milford earned below the state average. With more than a decade of experience and a Master’s degree plus additional credits, Knotts earns around $65,000 per year. She said she is pursuing a doctorate degree, which should bring her an additional pay bump. She earns EPER through work such as tutoring, but said she now does that for personal fulfillment, rather than to make ends meet, as she did earlier in her career.
Knotts was attracted to Milford by a community-oriented culture and an emphasis on professional development. She described her coworkers at Milford as “a family.”
“I know we're not the highest paying district in Sussex County,” she said. “But I like the people where I work. I like the community where I work. And I like the feel and the support that we receive where I'm working. So for me, it's not about looking around for more money ... I know the value of being comfortable in your work environment and enjoying your work environment. So, while other people may look around for the salary, the work environment to me is more important.”
Many in the education system echo Knotts’ sentiment that intangible aspects of the job can be more important than minor differences in salary.
Chasanov at Woodbridge said this is especially true when it comes to teacher retention.
"Salary will attract people to the district. Salary is not going to keep people in the district." - Brandywine Education Association President and Brandywine High School chemistry teacher Steven Rulon.
“If you get within the ball game [for salary], I think the more important factor is leadership,” he said. “I think more people are going to stay in school if they respect the principal, they respect the assistant principal, the people that are leading them and they can set up an environment of trust, an environment where they want to come to work. I think it's a much bigger factor than money, if the money is close. If we're talking a $7,000 to $10,000 difference, it's hard to compete.”
UD’s Henry noted that, coming out of the gate, salary weighs in heavily for teacher candidates graduating with student debt, but that begins to fade as their career continues.
“That puts an additional pressure on them to look for a sizable paycheck starting out, and that makes them more sensitive to salary than they have been in the past,” he said. “Working conditions are much more highly valued as teachers gain experience and make their decisions about where they want to live. Leadership and working conditions are the things that influence the transfer of the teachers.”
Brandywine Education Association President and Brandywine High School chemistry teacher Steven Rulon agreed salary plays a larger role in recruitment than retention.
“Salary will attract people to the district,” he said. “Salary is not going to keep people in the district. I’ve had contact with a number of people over the last couple of years that have left teaching — either left teaching with the district or left teaching altogether. None of them cited salary as their reason for leaving in their conversations with me. … What it really comes down to is the working conditions people are operating under.”
The average teacher in the Sussex Technical School District has 19 years of experience — the most out of any non-charter public district in the state.
Sussex Tech has consistently ranked within the top three highest-paid districts over the past five years, with teachers there making on average the most in the state in 2016. Joe Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Votech School District, noted that teachers in vocational districts — which only have high schools — may earn more Extra Pay for Extra Responsibility through high school sports and clubs than teachers in K-12 districts, elevating their average earned salary in comparison. Another difference between vocational-technical and traditional districts is the way they set their property tax rates. The school boards of vocational-technical school districts in Delaware can set tax rates without referenda. However, the maximum tax rates are capped in state code.
Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said salary plays a “big role” in retention, but is not the only factor.
“Teachers are very well respected within our school by not only administration, but the students. The climate is good. We have over 800 [student] applicants a year to get here since we’re a school of choice,” he said. “So all of that leads to teachers staying longer, spending their whole career here.”
Brandywine School District Chief Financial Officer Jason Hale agreed that reputation positively impacts interest in his district.
“If you look at the difference in pay [between districts], it's not so dramatically different that that's enough in itself to make somebody want to jump from one district to another,” he said.
Teachers in the Cape Henlopen School District earned on average the most of any non-vocational Sussex County district in 2019. Lacey Brown, president of the Cape Henlopen Education Association, said her district’s reputation is also a draw for teachers.
“We are growing at a crazy rate. Every time I turn around, we’re building another complex,” she said. “You want to be in a district with a nice foundation for growth.”
Although Caesar Rodney fell on the lower end of the salary scale in 2019, Joe Hartman, president of the district’s union, said that the reputation of the district entices employees.
“The administration is friendly to its employees and we do negotiate a decent salary and there is just a lot of opportunity to grow,” he added. “It's got a lot of good professional development, a lot of resources and we have a lot of great families and students. I think that it's very attractive for a lot of people, especially [those] who live around the area.”
Williams, superintendent of the Smyrna district, where the average teacher also earned below the state average in 2019, said his district has worked to build a supportive working environment.
“As is the case throughout the state, the teacher shortage, bus driver shortage— we're not immune to that,” he said. “So what we tried to do is build community connections between our families and our staff, so that once they arrive, they stay here and they become immersed in a lot of the different programs that we have internally.”
Shelley Meadowcroft, director of public relations for DSEA, noted that an Appoquinimink High School guidance counselor, who left Maryland to return to Delaware, recently testified before the state legislators about the budget. It wasn’t to argue for pay, however.
“He grew up here and wants to give back,” she said. “And now he has 600 students and he can't get done most of what he wants to get done. So I think even more than money, is the resources they receive. You see teachers advocating for that more and more now than you do with pay, because that's a part of their job, that affects them every day.”
Hartman echoed that sentiment. When his district goes to the bargaining table, he said that time is the largest factor educators discuss.
“You're constantly either planning for the future or grading what's been done in the past. And you're also teaching them in the right now,” he said. “If you want to give them good instruction, you have to reflect on your planning because if it didn't work this year, what can you do next year? If it didn't work this period, what can you do next period?”
The ability to go before local legislators is what makes Delaware a good place to teach, Hartman added.
“I am a six-minute drive from Legislative Hall from my building. If I taught in Pennsylvania or Texas, I would never get the exposure to the people who dictate what happens in my classroom that I do here,” he said. “Pound for pound, in Delaware, people have the most access to the people that make our decisions and those people are typically receptive. It's a great small community.”
Smyrna’s Williams agreed that the state’s size is a boon to educators.
“Because Delaware is small, there's a lot of networking,” he said. “Educators know one another. Whenever there's an issue or a problem or a concern, we're very much able to reach out to one another. I would teach nowhere else. And I think a lot of people feel that way.”
WHEN SALARY DOES MATTER: FIXING THE TEACHER PIPELINE
As of Feb. 2020, there were at least 30 classroom teacher openings among non-charter districts in Delaware for this school year, according to a web-based platform that most districts use for the hiring and application process.
Sussex Tech officials say that district had 10 classroom teacher vacancies at the start of the school year, which were filled, then added three last month. Dan Shortridge, public information officer for the district, said in an email this vacancy count is “a bit on the high side for our experience here.”
In Appoquinimink, Spoor said his district had 22 classroom teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year, but that number had dropped to 11. He said these numbers are high for the district.
In Woodbridge, two teacher vacancies opened up between Aug. 20, 2019 and mid-February. One of those positions opened due to enrollment growth, and remains unfilled due to “a lack of qualified applicants,” officials said.
The second vacancy is at the high school teacher level, which was vacated in the fall when an employee resigned. It’s currently being filled by a long-term sub due to a lack of qualified applicants, said Derek V. Prillaman, assistant superintendent.
“In my three years, the pool of qualified applicants seems to have declined,” Prillaman said in an email. “We currently have 13 [Alternative Routes to Certification] employees. Without this program, we would be in a very difficult position, especially at the secondary level.”
While teacher salary may not be the single driving factor in teacher recruitment and retention in Delaware districts, some argue it contributes to the overall difficulty attracting teachers. Others pointed to the added emotional component that may deter people from becoming educators.
District representatives said they find it difficult to find qualified educators in the state.
“It's a competition to get high quality educators to come work here,” said Spoor. “From a job market perspective, there's sort of no better time to be a teacher than right now. Graduates, or teachers, or whomever it may be, have their pick of different districts because so many are offering jobs, particularly in high need subject areas.”
“We all compete for the same small pool of applicants,” said John Sell, a former Sussex Tech English teacher and 2013 state Teacher of the Year who now works in human resources at the district. “There just aren't enough to go around.”
Secondary education remains the hardest hit in the teacher shortage, Rouser said. She added that men, especially men of color, are a demographic with the greatest shortage in the field.
“The talking point can be the importance for boys of color, and that’s significant, but it’s important for all students to have teachers that are diverse,” she said. “It’s important that they have that experience as young people. There are so many students who never have had an experience with a teacher of color, let alone a male teacher of color.”
In her previous role in the state’s Department of Education, Rouser said she would visit schools. At the elementary level, when she was talking with children, she heard with great frequency the desire to be a teacher. That interest waned when she heard from middle and high school students.
New Castle County Votech’s Jones at called this a “teacher pipeline issue.”
“When people really start looking to choose a major, I don't think education is very attractive as it used to be,” said Jones. “I think since 1976, across the U.S., our teacher pipeline has decreased every year and teacher prep program enrollment has decreased. I think that goes back to the narrative [surrounding teaching], but I also do think it is partly pay. I mean, you're coming in, you're going to make $40,000 to $43,000 in Delaware, give or take a little bit per district. I think it's more when they're going from high school to college, whether or not they see this as a viable profession that they want to be a part of.”
Williams at Smyrna agreed that industry-wide salaries are the key to making teaching an attractive profession.
“At the end of the day, a 21-year-old fresh out of college with heavy debt, potentially due to student loans, is going to be looking to maximize earning potential,” he said. “So while education is never going to be in the top third of potential salaries for young professionals, the conversations about increasing salaries are right at the top of the list. I mean, that's essentially what the industry would have to do to try to attract a greater number of candidates.”
Sell of Sussex Tech noted vocational districts face the added challenge of competing with industry for Career and Technical Education teachers, such as those who teach nursing or cosmetology.
“Oftentimes they are making much more in private industry than we can pay them here,” he said. “We've gone through quite a few autobody instructors, for example, over the last few years and salary has been a factor.”
But Sell said there are benefits other than salary — such as a state pension, better health insurance or a shorter work year — may attract industry professionals to CTE teaching positions.
Joe Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Votech School District, said the mission of vocational schools — where students work cooperatively in local businesses — is another non-salary factor that attracts teachers.
“I think what sets us apart is our Career and Technical Education,” he said. “We have a direct purpose that we are training students and educating them in a way that they directly impact New Castle County. What makes everybody's life a little more meaningful is knowing their purpose. In our district, we're very clear on our purpose."
But increasing demands on educators can limit the number of people who see themselves leading a classroom, Ingram at DSEA said.
“When you know, you come out of college with a degree, it's teaching — plus all this,” she said. “Maybe being an engineer, you don't have to take papers home to grade or think about [Individualized Education Programs] you have to write or other things you have to focus on. When you're done, you're done. You go home, you close the door to your office and then that's it for the day. An educator takes all that stuff home every day.”
Identifying the issue with the pipeline is pressing for both districts and institutions of higher education.
In his comments to the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in February, Caesar Rodney Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said K-12 educators want to help their students move on to programs like at UD or DSU.
“We look to expand our programs and help them recruit our students to move on to their schools so that we can have our homegrown teachers return to us,” he told the committee.
At the higher education level, Henry at UD said that he and the dean of the College of Arts and Science have created a task force to enhance the education program and increase enrollment.
"[Teachers are] very passionate about the profession. Their whole life's goal is to work with young children and to shape the future." - Kim Doherty, Brandywine School District exec dir. of human resources.
“We’re going to try to see the most feasible changes to increase enrollments through these findings,” he said.
Williams of Smyrna added that his district works closely with local colleges and universities. He highlighted early, dual and pre-enrollment programs with several local institutions, particularly Wilmington University and Welsey College, such as the Educators Rising Program, which began about five years ago.
“We network with the local colleges and universities, particularly Wilmington, with our Educators Rising program so that those students identify teaching as a potential career by their sophomore year in high school and they craft out a pathway,” he said. “They continue with their college preparation, and they come back and teach. … That has been a wonderful opportunity to build a greater supply of quality teachers.”
At the district level, many schools have created teacher academics through career and technical programming to introduce students to the profession, said Woodbridge superintendent Chasanov.
“We know if we convince people that come from our community to become teachers that more than likely, they're going to come back and teach for us,” he said.
Knotts, the elementary school teacher in the Milford School District, is an example of a student who came back home to teach.
“I've always lived in Delaware. So for me, it was an easy choice,” she said. “I grew up in the area, so I really wanted to stay around here.”
While salary may play a role in keeping teaching a viable profession, few in the education system cite it as the primary motivator for teachers.
Kim Doherty, executive director of human resources at the Brandywine School District, argued all teachers enter the profession for reasons other than money.
“I think people basically come into these jobs for reasons that are very personal to them,” she said. “They're very passionate about the profession. Their whole life’s goal is to work with young children and to shape the future.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified John Sell as an English teacher. Sell is now director of support services at the Sussex Technical School District.