on the money

The salary slide: as other professionals see growth, teachers’ pay stagnates, new report finds

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Newly minted college graduates considering the teaching profession probably don’t expect lucrative salaries. But they might not realize how big a financial hit they face: Teachers now earn about 20 percent less than other college-educated workers, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed think tank.

This teacher pay penalty has persisted and even grown modestly in recent years, the latest numbers show. It may be one reason why a majority of parents for the first time say they don’t want their children to become teachers, according to a recent poll. Low pay is also one of the chief drivers of recent teacher protests across the country.

The analysis bolsters those teachers’ arguments, though it shows that some of the salary gap is made up for by better healthcare and retirement benefits. But even accounting for benefits, there remains a 11 percent pay penalty for teachers.

“As we have shown in our more than a decade and a half of work on the topic, relative teacher pay has been eroding for over a half a century,” write EPI researchers Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel.

They find that, compared to other college graduates, teachers are paid nearly $350 less per week in salary, or 23 percent less. They also use a more sophisticated approach that controls for demographics, including age and level of education. This shows similar results: an 18.7 percent pay gap.

Accounting for benefits, the gap is slightly larger than it was in 2015 and substantially larger than in 1994, when teachers were paid on par with similarly educated professionals.

“The wage penalty [is] on its own critically important as it is only earnings that families can put toward making ends meet,” the EPI authors note. “It’s only earnings that can pay for expenses such as rent, food, and student loan payments.”

Arizona’s teachers face the largest salary penalty, at 36 percent. That state has also been roiled by waves of teacher activism, including an effort to put a pay hike on the November ballot. (That was recently nixed by the State Supreme Court over a wording issue.) North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado are next on the list.

The EPI study is just the latest of many attempts by researchers to determine whether teachers are really “underpaid.” That’s challenging to determine about any job, because compensation depends on a complicated web of factors like working conditions and job security, which can be hard to measure.

Critics of the EPI approach have argued that it doesn’t account for teachers’ greater job security thanks to tenure or fully capture the value of state-backed pensions. (In recent years, though, tenure and job protections have been weakened in a number of states, and other research suggests this deterred college graduates from entering teaching. A handful of states have also moved away from traditional pensions.)

Mishel of EPI counters that other factors, like not being able to take vacation when you want and the rigors of working with children, may make teaching less attractive. “You could point to a lot of factors that would make teachers need to get paid more,” he said.

The EPI report doesn’t distinguish between different groups of teachers, like those in high-poverty schools, who are much more likely to leave their schools than those in more affluent schools.

A separate study using a different approach finds that while high school teachers are substantially underpaid relative to similar workers, elementary and middle school teachers actually earn more money than they would in other jobs.

“It’s a mistake to treat teachers and teacher pay as a generic phenomenon,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington. “While it may be right that teacher pay is falling behind the pay levels of other professionals, the magnitudes really depend on what kind of teachers are being compared to what kinds of professionals.”

Another way to look at pay is to consider to what extent schools are experiencing teacher shortages. A 2017 report by the federal government showed that every state reported shortages in certain areas; some researchers argue that the real trouble is in states with particularly low pay and in areas like math, science, and special education.

Of course, the debate around teacher pay isn’t only focused on economic principles or debates about recruitment — it includes questions about basic fairness and economic justice.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a day off,” one Michigan teacher, who also works part time at a clothing store, told Vox. “I always had this understanding that I would never be rich as a teacher, but I never thought it would be this difficult to live on a teacher’s salary.” (Less than one in five teachers work a second job, though that’s higher than other workers.)

Another question is one of priorities: One school choice advocacy group points out that the number of teachers per student has risen between 1992 and 2015, as has the number of non-teaching staff in schools — even as teacher pay has flatlined.

What’s clear is that teachers’ salaries have been stagnant as other professionals’ wages have grown. Research suggests that pay affects who enters and who stays in teaching, which in turn affects student learning.

“The basic trend that teachers are losing ground relative to other college educated workers is pretty damning,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education economist at Northwest University. “It’s got to impact selection into the profession, and that’s the piece that worries me the most.”

at odds

‘The reckoning has come’: Denver teachers union takes a hard line in negotiations  

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Denver Classroom Teachers Association deputy executive director Corey Kern speaks to a room full of teachers during a break in negotiations between the union and and Denver Public Schools.

Negotiations grew more tense between the Denver teachers union and the district on Tuesday as the two sides struggled to find common ground over its pay-for-performance system.

Union and district officials appear to literally be at standstill. After a tense exchange before noon, district officials departed the room to regroup — and did not return to the negotiating table. Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday. 

The day’s developments indicate that it may be growing more difficult for Denver to avoid a strike that would upend Colorado’s largest school district and add to a national wave of teacher activism.

On Tuesday morning, Denver Classroom Teachers Association representatives told district leaders that they want a traditional salary schedule, with “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and longevity and “lanes” representing education. The district’s proposal, which would allow teachers who served 10 consecutive years to jump into the next lane, was unacceptable, the union said, and they don’t plan to budge.

“We need you to convert your structure to ours so we can move forward,” said union bargaining representative Robert Gould.

Asked what kind of changes the union might still be open to, Gould responded, “You’re not listening. You’re not listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two weeks, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two months, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying the last year, nor the last five years. What we’ve been saying is, we need the structure to be our structure. Then we can move forward.”

A long pause followed.

“Well, I don’t honestly know where we go from this ultimatum here,” said Michelle Berge, the district’s general counsel, adding that her team would regroup.

Then Gould continued.

“Denver teachers, they’ve met their limit,” he said. “There’s only so long you can continue to tell people no. And at some point, that’s what you’re going to get back — no. This Saturday, teachers are going to vote. They’re either going to vote yes for a commitment or they’re going to vote yes for a strike.”

“I understand that,” Berge said, explaining the district is struggling to find a way forward when the union hasn’t agreed to changes in months.

Then the room erupted with union supporters noting changes they had agreed to.

“Cut more central administration waste!” parent and education activist Amy Carrington yelled.

District officials said they were cutting central administration. Seven million dollars is being cut, and more is coming, they said.

As talk shifted back to the union, Pam Shamburg, DCTA executive director, said it was time for bigger change.

“The reckoning has come,” she said. “The district is going to have to dig deep. But it’s going to have to happen. And now is the time for the reckoning.”

The two sides went into a break — and didn’t meet again. 

District officials said Tuesday evening that they are processing the union’s position and have work to do before Thursday.

Superintendent Susana Cordova told Chalkbeat district officials entered Tuesday’s negotiations feeling they had come a long way toward the union position. Cordova said the district remains committed to making a deal, but would still like to get a counter-proposal from the union.

“We would like to see something from them,” said Cordova, who took the district’s top job last month. “I am new to negotiating, but that’s generally how that works.”

On Friday, Denver Public Schools officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more.

Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said the two sides need to reach a “fundamental understanding” of how a teacher can qualify to move up “lanes” and potentially earn more money.

“If not, it will be very difficult for us to make a counter to the district,” he told Chalkbeat. “We would like to get back to the table and work on the issue and come to an agreement. But right now, we’re so far apart.”

The union is pushing for teachers to be able to move up in the system not just if they have earned master’s degrees or doctorates, but from other avenues, such as taking taking college courses or completing district professional development units, he said. 

Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer of the Denver district, said steps and lanes have become a sticking point in part because of how much money it would take to fund the different proposals but also because of philosophical differences. The district believes its proposal actually allows for more flexibility for teachers, while the “very clear table” provides much more transparency than the old ProComp system.

Kern said the union was disappointed the two sides did not reconvene Tuesday — “it felt like we lost a day” — but is hopeful for what’s next.

Cordova said she believes a deal remains in everyone’s best interests, but if one cannot be reached, she will do everything possible to keep schools open. That includes offering more money to substitute teachers, deploying other district staff to classrooms, and preparing lessons for those people to teach.

The union, for its part, is also encouraging parents to send students to school if there is a strike — with the intent of proving how hard it is to run schools without teachers.

Bargaining sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, if necessary. Without an agreement, union leaders plan a strike vote for Saturday, and a strike could start as early as Jan. 28.

Eric Gorski contributed reporting.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that it was a parent, and not a union representative, who shouted, “Cut more central administration waste!”

Seeking substitutes

WANTED: Furloughed federal workers who can step into the classroom

PHOTO: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Union workers demonstrate Jan. 10 in Washington, D.C., against the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Routinely short of substitutes to fill in for absent teachers, a number of large school systems are appealing to furloughed federal workers to step in and earn some extra cash amid the longest partial government shutdown in the nation’s history.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is among the latest to go on a hiring offensive, urging federal employees on Tuesday to apply to be substitute teachers if they’re looking for work.

“We understand this is a tough time for many families impacted by what is happening at the national level,” said Amber Tyus, director of talent acquisition for the 85,000-student district. “We believe this is a way for workers to find employment that benefits them and the thousands of young people we serve in this district every day.”

Closer to Washington, D.C., several districts in northern Virginia and suburban Maryland are targeting federal workers who are currently without a salary.

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has held two hiring events in the past week, and “the response has been overwhelming,” said John Torre, a district spokesman.

“We are always in need of substitutes,” he added.

Just over half of the 800,000 government workers impacted by the shutdown are deemed “essential,” and therefore must continue to work without pay; the rest have been furloughed.

The nation appeared no closer to a resolution on Tuesday as the shutdown dragged into its fourth week due to President Trump’s funding impasse with Congress. Trump wants $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Federal workers missed their first paychecks last Friday, and many have struggled to pay their bills and feed their families. But that harsh reality also presented an opportunity for school districts needing professionals who can step into a classroom at a moment’s notice.

In Nashville, a substitute teacher can earn upwards of $1,300 every two weeks. There’s also a big need to support the district’s 5,200-plus certified teachers.

The school system must place substitutes in about 550 classrooms every day as teachers miss school due to illness, vacation, professional development, or other reasons. Tyus says about 900 more people are needed to round out the district’s 1,300-member substitute pool, noting: “We recognize our substitute teachers play an integral part in educating the students of MNPS.”

In Tennessee, substitute teachers must have a high school diploma or their GED, and some districts require a bachelor’s degree.

Applicants in Nashville must complete an online application, submit official college transcripts, clear a background check, and pass an online training course. The paperwork can take less than two weeks to process.

Requirements vary from state to state and district to district, so not all furloughed workers are eligible to work for their local school. For those who are, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators views hiring them as a win-win.

“There is a massive shortage for teachers and substitute teachers, so being creative and making lemonade out of lemons is a fabulous idea,” said Kelly Coash-Johnson, the association’s executive director.

Nationally, teachers miss an average of 11 days a year, according to a 2014 analysis of large districts by the National Council on Teacher Quality.