U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ~ Photo by Ralph Alswang

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Photo by Ralph Alswang

(EdSource) – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call for a dramatic boost in teacher salaries comes at a time when many teachers in California are experiencing lower compensation as a result of  cuts in school funding.

“We should keep our best teachers in the classroom—and they should be earning a lot more money—as much as $150,000 a year,” he declared in a passionate speech to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And starting teachers, he said, should earn $60,000.

On one level, Duncan’s plea can be seen as a commendable use of his considerable bully pulpit to draw attention to the diminished professional status of teachers, and to try to attract the best and the brightest to the profession.

On another level, what he proposed is far removed from what is happening on the ground in school districts in California and almost everywhere else in the nation. Over the past decade California has systematically eliminated a range of programs intended to reward some of its highest-performing teachers. More recently, in many districts teachers’  salaries have been reduced as a result of unpaid furlough days, cuts in benefits, and other cost cutting moves.

“Too often the heartbreaking reality is that a good teacher with a decade of classroom experience is hard-pressed to raise a family on a teacher’s salary,” said Duncan. “That must change.”

But how?

Teacher salaries in California are already near the highest in the country—but still far below the levels Duncan pitched to his enthusiastic audience.

In 2008–09, with an average salary of $66,995, California ranked third behind New York with an average teacher salary of $69,118. Nationally, the average is $54,319, with many states far below that figure.

Teachers with Ph.Ds and decades of service don’t crack the six-figure ceiling, even in districts like Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified with powerful unions negotiating for them. The $150,000 top salary envisaged by Duncan is closer to the $158,622 that the average school superintendent makes in California. Starting teachers in San Diego last year made $38,347, and in Los Angeles $45,637, far below Duncan’s hoped for initial salary of $60,000.

“Let’s face it,” Duncan said. “A phenomenal teacher educating underserved kids in science, technology, math, engineering, or the arts should be very well compensated, just as they are in any other profession. A kindergarten teacher who can turn every child into a reader is priceless.”

But in constant dollars teachers’ salaries nationally are more or less stuck at the same level they were two decades ago.

Average Classroom Teacher Salary, 1991-2011

Source: National Education Association (NEA), Rankings and Estimates, 2011.

Over the years, California has experimented with programs to boost compensation for outstanding teaching. But those programs have fallen victim to multiple budget crises throughout the past decade.

The best known was the 1999 Certificated Staff Incentive Program which awarded $100 million in teacher bonuses of up to $25,000 each for teachers in underperforming schools whose student performance improved beyond minimum growth targets. But it was abandoned after just one round of bonuses were awarded, even though it is still enshrined in state law (see California Education Code Section 44650). The Governor’s Performance Awards and other similar programs were also phased out without result in any permanent increase in teachers’ basic salary levels.

Last year, in response to yet another budget crisis, the state began phasing out its award of $5,000 a year for four years to teachers who earn National Board certification. A decade earlier it had eliminated the one-time bonus of $10,000 paid to teachers just for getting the certification.

And just days before Duncan gave his speech, New York City schools announced that they had abandoned a teacher bonus program that had cost the district $56 million over three years. Even when it was in place, the program yielded teachers a mere $3,000—a fraction of the far more generous compensation that Duncan has in mind.

Instead of salary increases, more often than not teacher compensation is being reduced through methods such as mandatory furlough days, higher co-pays or deductions for health benefits, a freeze on cost-of-living allowances, and so on.

“We must remake the teaching profession itself,” said Duncan. “We must think big. Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserve better.”

All true.

But if higher compensation is to be part of the picture, it cannot happen without a serious conversation about policies—government or otherwise—and funding sources that could lead to actual changes in the schools, including how teachers are paid.


Want to find out how teachers in your school district are paid? Check out the Ed-Data website and this Sacramento Bee data base.

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