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II. Teacher Salaries and Benefits
No topic in education is more liable to cause heated debate than the compensation paid to our nation's public school teachers. On one side are the teachers and their labor unions, who argue that they are being asked to provide more and more services without a corresponding increase in pay. The problems of modern America - broken homes, drug use, child abuse, teenage pregnancy - all have an impact on the learning environment. Every day, teachers and other school staff take on responsibilities that in past years would have been undertaken by parents and guardians. Why this is so, and whether it is a good or bad thing, is well beyond the realm of this study. However, teachers feel they are being asked to do more than just teach, and so should be paid accordingly.
Teachers also feel that higher salaries and benefits would reflect a larger measure of public respect for their profession. Teachers' union officials often say that teachers should receive respect comparable to that afforded doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals. Indeed, Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been quoted as saying that beginning teaches should earn wages comparable to those afforded beginning doctors and lawyers.
On the other side of the debate are those who argue that teachers are overpaid for the results they achieve. The newspapers are filled with horror stories of high school seniors who can't find Mexico on a map, who have no idea in which half-century the Civil War was fought, and who are unable to decipher a bus schedule. Who are we to blame for this state of affairs, these critics argue, besides the teachers?
A number of politicians and public policy organizations are seeking ways to tie compensation to student performance. Kentucky instituted a system of bonuses for improved test scores (with controversial results). There is a major push for accountability at all levels of public education. Along with this push, there are various movements to provide vouchers to public school students, which they could then use to attend the school of their choice, including private schools.
The great hidden cornerstone to the voucher debate is the role that
teacher compensation plays. Vouchers are typically for a sum about half
of what it would cost to educate a child in public schools. The reduced
per-pupil spending is part of the appeal. Students will be able to get
as good an education (or better) at half the cost. How? How can private
schools educate children for half the price? While private schools operate
with significantly smaller overhead costs and administrative staffs, the
cost differential is mostly due to lower pay and benefits for their teachers.
On average, public school teachers make 50 percent more than private school
Public school teacher compensation is chiefly determined by political
forces, not market forces. Differences in salaries from state to state
are determined by the status of the economy, collective bargaining laws,
and the mood of the public. Differences from district to district are usually
determined by the tax base and the relative skill of the district and union
negotiators at the bargaining table. Both the National Education Association
and the American Federation of Teachers closely track teacher salaries.
They release these results every year, ranking the states in order of average
teacher salary. Their figures differ, but are close enough to each other,
But what do such rankings really tell us? That Connecticut pays its teachers more than South Dakota pays theirs? That is hardly surprising, since Connecticut pays workers at all levels more than South Dakota does. Mississippi cannot be expected to keep teacher salaries on a par with New Jersey's. So how do we generate more comparable numbers? Applying regional cost-of-living factors to the mix could do it, but then that data would also be open to errors and misapplications.
Table 6 simply takes two sets of figures: NEA's average annual teacher salary state rankings for 1995-96 and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics average annual salary state rankings for all workers in 1995. The difference between the two is then expressed in percentage terms and the states are ranked. The state that pays its teachers the greatest percentage more than that state's average worker is ranked first. NEA uses the school year and the Labor Department uses the calendar year, but the lack of precision in the raw numbers should not significantly affect the percentages - particularly for state-to-state comparisons. The United States as a whole paid its public school teachers 34.9% more than its average workers earned.
Percentage By Which Average Teacher's
1) Pennsylvania 65.2
Table 6 lends a different perspective to salary comparisons. The rankings
of some states did not change appreciably when the wages of average workers
were taken into account. Louisiana ranked 50th in teacher salaries and
it ranks 50th in percentage above workers' wages. Michigan went from 6th
to 9th. But other states had huge differences. South Dakota, ranked last
in teacher salaries, moves up to 35th in this formulation. Arkansas, 46th
in teacher salaries moved up to 26th.
It is surprising to find such a wide range of percentages. One would expect that rich states and poor states would pay their teachers similar amounts relative to the rest of the workers in those states. But that is clearly not the case. Louisiana teachers are paid poorly, and are paid poorly relative to other Louisiana workers. Pennsylvania teachers are paid well, and are paid extraordinarily well relative to other Pennsylvania workers. DC teachers are paid well, but not so well compared to other DC workers.
What accounts for these differences? Are states at the top of the list more generous to teachers? Are teachers' unions stronger there? Or are there simply more experienced, therefore more high-paid teachers, than new, low-paid teachers?
The differences between the salaries of the average teacher and the new teacher can be significant. It's useful to know about the average teacher, but when we seek to increase education spending, and therefore teacher salaries, our primary purpose is to attract more highly qualified candidates to the profession. Teacher attrition (discussed later) is not a major issue after the three-year point. The evidence suggests that once teachers successfully complete their probationary status, they are unlikely to leave the profession until retirement. Increasing salaries to increase teacher retention is unnecessary. Increasing salaries to improve teacher recruiting may be necessary, but it will require an examination of a different set of wage statistics - the starting salaries of teachers.
The American Federation of Teachers collects data on the minimum, or
beginning, salaries of teachers in each state. Simply listing these salaries
has some value, as we can then determine how initially attractive the teaching
profession would be to a prospective candidate. But people don't choose
career fields merely on the basis of the starting salary, but also on the
opportunity for, and swiftness of, wage advancement. In other words, prospective
teachers are interested in what they will be paid now, but they are also
interested in what they will be paid in three, five and seven years.
State Starting Salary Climb (%)
1) Alaska 34,800 36.1
The initial reaction to teacher recruitment problems is to raise starting salaries. This is likely to increase inflow to the profession, but it may not have as great an effect as needed. All other factors being equal, an increase in starting salaries means a smaller increase in average salaries. Depending on a number of factors and the structure of a pay raise, an increase in starting salaries may significantly flatten the climb, offsetting some of the positive effects of the raise. Compare the states ranked 15th and 16th in Table 7. Alabama's minimum salary is $24,824. Rhode Island's is $24,754. Since the cost of living in Rhode Island is much higher than that in Alabama, one might reason that it is easier to hire new teachers in Alabama than in Rhode Island. But when you account for the climb, the perspective changes. New Rhode Island teachers can expect a 69% climb while Alabama teachers can expect only slightly more than 26%.
Ohio, at $20,355, ranks 45th among states in starting teacher salary. This ranking may be politically useful in bargaining for better pay for starting teachers, but the 87.1% climb is certainly an important factor in choosing teaching over other professions. The results of Table 7 may reduce the importance of starting salary as a measure of recruitment efforts. This does not end the debate, however. School boards can use the information to argue against higher starting salaries, but unions can argue that increases along the entire pay scale are a necessary element of teacher recruitment.
Often lost in the discussion of how much teachers make is how much they work. A teacher's work-year is significantly shorter than other profession's work-year. Teachers counter these formulations by claiming their work-day is longer than other profession's work-days because of uncompensated time spent grading papers, meeting with parents, etc. The question of how much work teachers do needs answering, if we are to make some sense of one side's depiction of teachers who are lazing around all summer, while the other side describes teachers as constantly working into the wee hours for slave wages.
We are presented with a problem at the outset. An empirical analysis of teachers' workload has yet to be done. No survey group or research organization follows teachers around all day, timing the hours they spend on school work. Statistics on the subject are highly dependent on collective bargaining agreements (which define how many hours teachers must work) and self-reporting by teachers (which tells us about working on their own time). These are subject to numerous biases and errors. There is a natural tendency to inflate the number of hours one spends on work, particularly if the work is uncompensated. Compensating for this bias may lead to other biases, so instead of trying to work toward a reasonable middle, Table 8 illustrates both extremes - denoted as "teacher maximum work" and "teacher minimum work." In neither case is any effect of sick days, leaves of absence, release time or other such personal manipulations of work time taken into account. All numbers are calculations based on an NEA survey conducted in 1997 for the 1995-96 school year. The average contract required 7.3 hours of work per day. Teachers reported working an average of 2.5 hours per day extra on uncompensated work for school. These two figures are the sole basis for the differences between the other maximum and minimum numbers. The projected annualized wage tells us how much teachers would make at the specified hourly wage for a 7.5 hour work day, 235 day work year, similar to an average professional's required work year.
Teacher Maximum Work Teacher Minimum Work
Classroom teacher avg. salary $35,549 $35,549
We now have a new and better way to compare teacher's wages to those of other professionals. We can use the hourly wage, breaking down the annual pay for accountants, managers or other professionals to compare with the above numbers, or we can use the projected annualized wage to compare with other professionals' annual salaries.
Table 8 tells us that if we take teachers at their word regarding uncompensated work-time, their average annual wage for 1995-96 was the same as a professional who worked a normal year and earned $34,369. If we only account for the hours that a teacher is required to work, than that same professional would have had to earn $46,142 to match the average teacher.
How much we should rely on teacher self-reporting is a subjective judgment. It seems fair to say, however, that teachers do put in significant hours of work outside of school. It also seems fair to say the claim that this amounts to 2.5 hours per day, every day, sounds inflated. Perhaps teacher average salary is an accurate comparable figure, with extra hours teachers work offset by the number of days they don't work. Of course, an important factor not addressed in this comparison is the number of uncompensated hours other professionals work.
Since teachers do work an average of 186 days per year, what are they doing those other days? Previously unpublished data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that many of them are earning extra money. Table 9 lists this information for the 1993-94 school year. Extra duties include coaching sports, coordinating clubs and other activities for which the teacher is compensated during the school year. Summer school is compensated pay for teaching beyond the normal school year. Tutoring, other education work and other non-education work are jobs teachers maintain for other employers C not the district which pays their teacher salary.
Number of Full-Time Teachers Percentage of Full-Time
Classroom duties 2,340,443 100%
Please note that these numbers and percentages are not cumulative because of unknown overlap. A teacher who tutors and sells insurance during the summer will appear twice. Nevertheless, somewhere between 35 percent and 71 percent of teachers earn extra income. The amount they earned was large enough to raise the average teacher income by $2,345 that year. This additional income is not incorporated in average salary figures computed by NEA, AFT or the U.S. Department of Education.
Finally, salary is only one component of teacher compensation. Benefits - as we have seen in the per-pupil spending tables - are a significant expense for school districts and therefore a significant factor in teacher recruitment, hiring and retention. Salaries and benefits, taken together, are so significant that they constitute almost the entire amount of what we call "instructional spending." Table 10 ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia in salary and benefits as a percentage of instructional spending. The figures are computed from U.S. Department of Education data for 1994-95. The U.S. average was 92.26%.
State Salaries & Benefits As Percentage
1) Arizona 96.03
Perhaps the biggest eye-openers here are the relatively low percentages that some high-paying states - Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alaska and Massachusetts - allocate to salaries and benefits. On the other side, Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky are all middle-of-the-pack states in salaries, but they hold the top three spots in percentage allocated to salaries and benefits. Are the lower-ranked states in Table 10 spending more on books, supplies and other student services? Or are they simply generous with employee benefits relative to salaries? Table 11 gives us more insight into these questions. Using the same Department of Education data as in Table 10, Table 11 ranks the states according to a salary/benefit ratio. The figures are the number of cents spent on employee benefits for every dollar spent on salaries. The U.S. average is 26.6 cents.
State Cents Spent on Benefits
1) West Virginia 36.5
Remember, this is not a "#1 good, #51 bad" table. West Virginia is not spending more on benefits than Texas. Table 11 simply illustrates how compensation for instructors is divided up. West Virginia and Utah are low salary states, but they allocate a high percentage of funding to benefits. Connecticut is a high salary state, but it allocates a small percentage to benefits. Indeed, when benefits are taken into account, the bargaining position of some states' teachers are strengthened. Eight of the top 10 states in teacher salary fall out of the top 10 in benefit ratio. Rhode Island is 10th in salary and 10th in benefit ratio. Only one high salary state - Michigan - improved in the benefit ratio rankings. Looking at those statistics side-by-side, it's hard to argue against the notion that Michigan teachers are doing extremely well. Every state in the bottom 15 in salaries moved up in the benefit ratio ranking.
Again, discussing teacher salaries without taking benefits into account is leaving off over a quarter of the compensation picture. Teacher prospects certainly consider benefit packages when choosing one career over another, or one district over another. It is the total amount of compensation tendered to teachers which dictates what kind of work force public education will have.
The press has settled on per-pupil spending as the hallmark of public education finance. But the most recent U.S. Department of Education figures show that 57 percent of all we spend on education goes to pay the salaries and benefits of teachers. How about a way to measure per-teacher spending? And how can we relate that to the number of students affected by that spending?
Table 12 ranks the 50 states and District of Columbia by taking each state's per-pupil spending for 1994-95 (current expenditures divided by average daily attendance) and dividing it into each state's cost per teacher (average salary plus average benefits). The result is expressed as the "per-teacher rate" and is designed to complement, not replace, per-pupil spending. A simple example will illustrate: State X spends $5,000 per pupil. It spends $50,000 on the salary and benefits of the average teacher. Therefore, its per-teacher rate is 10.0. The per-teacher rate for the entire U.S. in 1994-95 was 7.74.
State Per-Teacher Rate
1) Utah 10.78
The results can be interpreted a number of different ways. If your state appears at the bottom of the list, it could be because teachers are underpaid, or because non-teaching education employees are overpaid, or because your state spends more money on books and supplies. If your state appears at the top of the list, it could be because teachers are overpaid, or because education bureaucracies are small, or because per-pupil spending is too low. The fact that there are different interpretations is what sets the per-teacher rate apart from per-pupil spending alone as a statistic. Instead of arguments over "not enough" or "too much," the debate is altered to "where?" Are the salaries and benefits of New Jersey teachers really as high as their #4 national ranking would suggest, when it requires the full spending of fewer than six pupils to cover their cost? Conversely, with California in the midst of a massive program to reduce most elementary school classes to 20 students, should it really be necessary to use the full spending of more than half the class to cover the costs of providing it with a teacher?
There will always be public policy debates over education spending, but they always tend to be about what we will spend next year. Analysis of where we have spent our education dollars, and whether they did any good allocated in those amounts and percentages, is as forgotten as the Third Amendment. Spending is the most important issue, but not the only one. A few descriptive statistics also shed some light on the state of American public education.
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