Teachers’ Appeal for more Money Requires Scrutiny

Todd Maddison

Demands from teachers’ unions for extra bonus “contract raises” are coming with increasing frequency. The Los Angeles Unified union’s recent announcement seeking a 20 percent raise (on top of their normal salary schedule increases) is just one of many such negotiations in progress.

Fundamental to an evaluation of any request for more money is knowing what that employee is earning right now. There is no manager or company owner in existence who would talk pay with an employee without knowing how much that employee makes.

Yet in our school districts, that appears to be unimportant. Actual data is never disclosed, whether in negotiation updates, board meetings or media reporting. We hear anecdotal stories from people who feel they are “underpaid,” but who doesn’t? Sometimes we get stories that use averages, almost always from sources that are not using actual pay records. We never see actual analysis based on real pay records.

Transparent California uses legal public records requests to obtain this data directly from our school districts’ own pay records. That data can be used to cut through the myths about teacher pay to arrive at some real facts.

We’re still collecting payroll data for the 2021-22 school year, but information gathered so far – covering over 219,000 certificated employees in 434 districts that educated 82 percent of our kids in 2021 – shows the median total pay for certificated staff was $96,323 and median total compensation (including benefits) $125,348. That total includes all retirement contributions from the district and state plus the district’s contribution toward health care premiums.

This may include some one-time bonuses given out with Covid mitigation funding, but the data is generally in line with normal increases seen year over year without Covid funding as a factor. The same numbers for 2019-20 (when very few additional bonuses were implemented) were $90,971 and $123,223, respectively.

Why use median rather than average? Median gives a more accurate representation of what an employee can expect to be paid. For example, let’s say WidgetCo has 10 employees. Nine make $50,000 a year, one makes $500,000. The average of this is $95,000/year, which no one makes. The median is $50K, which almost everyone makes.

Does median pay of $96,323 make one underpaid? That is a judgment call for school board members, but we can look at the pay of comparably educated private employees using the U.S. Census Bureau’s educational attainment data. We often hear educators and others in the industry claim they would make more with the same education in private industry. Let’s look at that claim:

The state Department of Education publishes annual data on the educational attainment of our teachers. In 2019, that data shows 51.57 percent of our teachers had a bachelor’s degree, and 48.43 percent had more advanced degrees. Since teachers with a bachelor’s also take an extra year of schooling to earn their credentials, we’ve weighted the comparable pay numbers to include that additional year.

Using this mix of educational attainment, we get a comparably educated median individual income outside the education sector of $88,435. Comparing what teachers make in education to what they would likely make with the same level of schooling in private industry, we see they make about $8,000 more working as educators.

This doesn’t factor in additional compensation teachers receive funding their retirement plan.

The CalSTRS pension plan contributions by the district and state equal 26.48 percent of a teacher’s salary. In private industry, an employer would contribute 6.2 percent of employee pay toward their social security benefits and add in a 401(k) “match” of about 4 percent. That results in a total contribution to retirement of about 10.2 percent. (Teachers neither contribute to nor receive Social Security.)

This means CalSTRS contributions are 16.28 percent of pay more than private employees receive from their employers in retirement benefits. Using a median pay of $96,323, teachers are given an additional $15,681 for retirement. If a private employee were so lucky as to get that and put it in their 401(k), even assuming no future increases, it would likely be worth over $2.5 million after a 30-year career. That seems pretty significant.

A private employee would need to make over $112,000 a year to enjoy the same standard of living as a teacher. And the teacher plan comes with guaranteed increases, a high level of job security, significantly more time off (teacher contracts often only require 185 days of work annually), and in many cases health insurance plans that are out of reach for private employees. (The total compensation of $125,348 mentioned above includes the cost of these health plans.)

During negotiations, we often see a ubiquitous union talking point that teachers are only demanding “fair pay.” Is a comparable income of $112,000, with better benefits and for a total work-year significantly less than private employees “unfair?”

We also see unions repeatedly claim members are not being shown “respect” if one suggests it might be better to use that money for other things. Is “respect” being measured in terms of “dollars in my pocket” a lesson we want our kids to be taught?

Perhaps “respect” could also be measured in decreasing class sizes, better funding STEM programs or programs for needy or gifted kids, improving facility maintenance, providing teachers with money for classroom discretionary supplies, or even higher pay for starting teachers – all things that could be done with that same money.

Education funding is always tight and, with the state projecting a $25 billion drop in tax revenue next year, becoming tighter. Parents need to keep in mind every dollar given to employees in bonus raises is a dollar taken from programs that improve education. When the union comes demanding more money for their pockets, perhaps it’s time to use real data to evaluate those requests.

I have a great deal of respect for our teachers. They do a critical job that benefits us all. I’m very happy we are able to pay them more than they would make outside education for their work. But … more?

Perhaps there’s a better lesson our kids could learn from their teachers. Perhaps using education dollars to improve education should be viewed as a form of “respect” as well.

Todd Maddison is the director of research for Transparent California, a project of Nevada Policy that compiles and makes public government pay and pension data in California. Its counterpart is Transparent Nevada, which makes public government pay and pension data in the Silver State.