Outrageous Teacher Pay?

The Chicago Teachers' Union strike may be over, but it has reignited the broader debate over education reform. Behind Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s negotiation stance is that underperforming schools are caused, at least in part, by underperforming teachers, and improving those schools requires better teachers who work harder and are easier to fire. Bad students just need better teachers, the thinking goes. It’s was part of the policy stance behind the attitude of former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, and was popularized in the hit documentary, Waiting for Superman.

If reformers are starting from that idea, then it must seem ridiculous that part of the Chicago contract negotiations hinge on paying those teachers better. There’s a popular idea that all of these teachers, who, after all, get summers off, are overpaid. We can’t answer the policy questions, but it’s pretty easy to see whether teachers are overpaid compared to other certified professionals with bachelor’s degree. The Prospect decided to look at how teacher pay has changed since 1997, which was the oldest year for which we could find data online, until 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, and compared it with how pay has changed for similar professions—accounting and nursing. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teacher pay started off at a lower level nationally, and rose more slowly in the past 14 years. 

What about the idea that Chicago teachers are getting paid outrageous amounts? For that, we went to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a “teacher reform” organization that collects data on teacher pay and other components of collective bargaining agreements. (It is nonpartisan, and is funded by private big shots like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, but it “was founded in 2000 to provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations,” i.e., teachers unions. Still, it provides useful information on teacher pay across the country.)

The Prospect compared Chicago to eight other of the largest school districts in the country, and looked at the entry-level pay and the highest step on the salary schedule. Chicago annual pay starts about $10,000 higher than the biggest counties in Florida, which dominates the chart with its many large school districts. It also reaches higher than all the districts other than New York City. The median salary for Chicago teachers is $67,974, which is just south of the exact middle of the bar in the graph below to Chicago.

 

It should be no surprise that New York City is so high—it's routinely ranked as the most expensive city in North America on cost of living indexes. Chicago ranks lower, at 110 in a report from a human resources consulting firm, Mercer, [requires a subscription], right at the same level as Miami, Florida, where teachers are paid less. But if the argument is that American school children need quality teachers, cutting teacher pay in a race to the bottom is an odd strategy.

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