Race to the Bottom

Colorado teachers can claim an unwelcome distinction: most underpaid in the nation (or close to it)

Teachers rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 4, 2018. (J PAT CARTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma and Kentucky have staged protests or walked off the job in recent weeks to agitate for better pay and more money for their schools.

But the teachers who are the most underpaid in the nation – at least when compared to their peers with similar education levels – are in Colorado.

A recent study from the Education Law Center, a group that advocates for more school funding, ranked Colorado dead last in the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The typical 25-year-old teacher at the beginning of her career in Colorado makes just 69 percent of what her peers with similar education levels who work similar hours earn.

In Facebook comments, in speeches on the floor of Colorado General Assembly, in asides made during interviews, teachers and policy makers have started to connect low pay here and labor unrest elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Denver teachers union threatened to call a strike vote, something teachers here haven’t done since the 1990s, when negotiations broke down over raising base pay.

Teacher pay also was highlighted in a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education on the state’s teacher shortage, which is particularly acute in rural areas where salaries are even lower. An early draft of that report recommended that lawmakers establish a minimum salary for teachers, but the final draft backed off from that recommendation, marking the idea with $$$$ for “high cost.”

One reason teachers are further behind here is that Colorado is a relatively high-earning state, ranking eighth for median household income.

But another is that they don’t earn much, even for teachers. The National Education Association’s annual ranking of the states put Colorado in 46th place for teacher pay in 2016, with an average annual salary of $46,155. In contrast, teachers in Wyoming, which ranks 16th for teacher pay, earned an average annual salary of $58,140, a hair below the national average and roughly equivalent to the salaries earned by other college-educated professionals there.

At the same time, the cost of living in urban districts is going up. A recent study found that starting teachers in three of the state’s largest districts, including Denver, could not afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, in Colorado’s rural districts, superintendents often share stories of teachers who leave for other states – or for jobs at big box stores that pay more.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of states for school funding, with implications for teacher salaries, though conservatives will also point to the cost of pension benefits as a reason districts don’t raise wages. Since the Great Recession, lawmakers have held back billions of dollars that, under the state constitution, should have gone to schools.

There are some challenges to solving this problem. Any statewide tax increase to bring Colorado schools closer to the national average would require voter approval, and they’ve declined to do so twice in recent years. In recognition of this reality, the Denver teachers union extended negotiations until after November, when voters might see yet another tax increase for education on the ballot.

Unlike many states, Colorado has no statewide teacher salary schedule. State lawmakers have said they could send more money to schools, but they couldn’t make those districts raise teacher pay. However, many superintendents say they would raise pay if they could, in order to stay competitive.

This problem has been a long time in the making. An Economic Policy Institute report from 2016 found that teacher wages had fallen significantly behind over the preceding 20 years. Nationwide, teachers earned just 1.8 percent less than comparable workers in 1994, but by 2015, they earned 17 percent less. Even when the value of more generous public sector benefits were included, they earned 11 percent less than comparable workers. And as the report’s authors note, benefits can’t be used to make rent, buy groceries, or pay down student loans.

The Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed progressive think tank, ranked Colorado 50th, ahead only of Arizona, in how teacher pay compares to that of other college-educated workers. (Both reports include the District of Columbia, so 51st is last place.) The Economic Policy Institute looked at wages for all workers aged 18-64 who hold either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, not just starting salaries. Their study also found that more experienced teachers with a decade or two in the profession have fallen further behind their peers in other professions than young teachers just starting their careers.

What does this mean for students? Research on the connection between teacher pay and student performance is limited, but some studies have found that even modest pay increases reduce turnover and students do better when more teachers stick around longer.

Future of Teaching

Average salary: $50,481. Doctorates: 21. First year educators: 241. We have the numbers on Indianapolis Public Schools teachers.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Teachers in the state’s largest district are facing significant upheaval, as Indianapolis Public Schools consolidates high schools and grapples with a steep budget deficit.

Teachers and other staff are one of the district’s biggest expenses. This year, the district expects to spend nearly $200 million on salaries and benefits for staff, the vast majority of its general fund operating budget. In the months ahead, it is uncertain what steps district leaders will take to balance the budget, but it is likely teachers will be heavily impacted.

Already, we’re seeing some of the effects of high school closings and budget woes on educators. At the beginning of this month, nearly 150 educators who were displaced by high school closings are still looking for jobs, and the district is offering teachers $20,000 to retire. The district is also planning to ask taxpayers for extra money that leaders say is essential to fund regular teacher raises.

This intense focus on educators got us wondering about the district’s teaching ranks — what are their backgrounds, how high are their salaries, how much experience do they have? Here are some of the essential details we learned from state data about Indianapolis’ teachers.

From veterans to newbies

  • 241 Indianapolis Public Schools educators are in their first year, about 10 percent of the 2,497 certified employees in the district this year.
  • The school with the most first-year educators is John Marshall Middle School, where 20 educators were reported to be in their first year.
  • 34 educators have 40 or more years of experience, and 674 have 20 or more years experience.

Diploma details

  • 21 educators in Indianapolis Public Schools have doctorates, including the district’s chief, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. At the school level, Arsenal Technical High School and Northwest High School each have three educators with doctorates.
  • 789 have master’s degrees, and 1,649 have bachelor’s degrees as their highest level of education.

Money matters

  • Last year, the average annual teacher salary in the district was $50,481 — down about $1,900 from the average in 2013-2014.
  • The district spent a total of $1,926,531 on teacher salary increases last year.
  • Still, IPS has been raising teacher pay. The minimum salary for educators has gone up by more than $4,000 to $40,000 since 2013-2014.

Sources: Data from the first period 2017-18 Indiana Department of Education certified employee report and the 2016-17 and 2013-2014 collective bargaining reports from the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid what they deserve if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise pay for the first time in years.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

In the past, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of newly hired teachers who could help alleviate the shortage. New teachers could only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts.

Vitti has said low pay in the Detroit district is the main reason it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep the ones they have. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The subcommittee also recommended giving a one-time bonus for teachers at the top of the salary scale to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes would make a huge impact. It’s a major change for district teachers who have been stuck in a pay freeze and could draw new teachers into the district now that their experience may be recognized, allowing them to start at a higher salary.  

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” she said. Specifically, the federation wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.