DECATUR — After playing a leading role in the enactment of Illinois' new school funding formula, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, says he's now looking to take on the state's growing shortage of teachers.
Manar has introduced legislation in the Illinois Senate that would raise the statewide minimum salary for public school teachers to $40,000, tackling what he said is the root of the issue.
"The people that we want to be in front of a classroom of kids, those people are choosing other professions because they pay better," Manar said.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows teacher salaries have declined 7.5 percent since 2000, adjusted for inflation, and local districts have been reporting challenges in finding new talent.
"We definitely feel the impact of the teacher shortage just like other districts in the state," said Warrensburg-Latham Superintendent Kristen Kendrick-Weikle. "For certain positions you would've gotten 50 to 70 (applicants) even six years ago. Now, you would get maybe 10 or less."
According to figures from the National Education Association, Illinois' average starting teacher salary is already at $38,820, which ranks 18th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Recently, teachers in states where salaries rank at the bottom of national averages are pushing lawmakers for raises. In West Virginia, teachers won a 5 percent raise in March after striking. In Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers are conducting similar challenges.
Manar organized a Senate Committee hearing in November with Decatur School District officials who have been trying to find ways to recruit new hires.
Suzanne Kreps, president of the Decatur Education Association, said the union negotiated higher step raises for teachers in their first five years of their career at the expense of getting salary bumps for their more experienced counterparts.
"Those of us who were more at the top (in terms of years of experience), we didn't get anything," Kreps said. "We voted on that, overwhelmingly, because we wanted to get our new teachers."
That said, interest groups representing school administrators oppose the current version of Manar's bill, which does not address how districts would pay for higher salaries.
"The premise of the bill is not flawed, the question is how to pay for it," Manar said.
Kendrick-Weikle and other superintendents in Macon County said they like the idea but had reservations for that reason.
"I guess my first reaction is that the state would probably (have to) help us meet those minimums," Meridian Superintendent Dan Brue said. "If Andy Manar's got an idea to give us extra money for that ... I'd be happy to take the state's money to make sure we pay the minimum."
Manar acknowledged the legislation is meant to start the conversation of addressing Illinois' teacher shortage, and could take years to realize.
"I am absolutely convinced that if we don't address the entry-level wage of teachers, we don't solve the teacher-shortage crisis," he said.