Many teachers across America might need to squint to find common ground with Toni Myers. She teaches in Baker City, Oregon, a small city a few miles from mountains and two hours from a major airport. From her school, Myers says, she sees more cows than people.
But in terms of making a living as a teacher, Myers faced a struggle common to millions.
"I made more as a manager at McDonald's than I did my first six years teaching," Myers said. "As a professional with a five-year degree, a master's degree, I shouldn't have had to take a pay cut."
A federal survey found nearly half of America's public schools entered the year understaffed. Seventy percent reported having too few candidates applying for teaching jobs.
In Baker City, Myers is head of the teachers' union. This past year, when she sat down to negotiate, she was shocked — pleasantly — at the offer.
"What we ended up offering was starting every teacher in the school district at $60,000," said Erin Lair, the district's superintendent.
"I am not usually an emotional person," Myers said. "And I teared up."
A salary of $60,000 is nearly a 60% raise from what first-time teachers made the year before. It's also the number thrown around by a handful of districts, states and even Congress as a potential floor for teacher salaries.
"We've heard stories from teachers that have changed their family planning as a result of this," Lair said. "If I'd had this opportunity when I started my career, so many things would be so different."
In Baker City, they entered the year with a massive surplus … and an audacious idea to lure and keep teachers. But how widespread could this idea get?
"This is Baker City getting strong teachers, likely at the expense of neighboring school districts," said Michael Hansen, a senior education fellow for Brookings. He questions how Baker City will sustain higher salaries without a permanent hike in funding. He also points to research saying salary alone won't keep teachers if conditions aren't strong as well.
At a time of teacher shortage, Hansen said, audacious ideas must stretch beyond Baker City.
"It won't take much to shift people's perceptions and their willingness to try teaching as a career," Hansen said. "It would require more than a single rural school district in eastern Oregon doing it."
"I don't want to be on this island indefinitely," said Lair. "I want this groundswell to happen. I want education to be a viable career choice."
Lair has started spreading the idea to other districts, both within and beyond Oregon. All involved say, in many ways, Baker City is indeed an island in terms of location, population, and overall identity.
"If we can get the conversation started, maybe the state can figure out how to do this for everybody," Myers said. "It's just opening that conversation and saying, 'Little Baker City did it. What can we do?'"
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