Although we tend to focus primarily on things like test scores and class offerings when we think of public education, many other issues impact how our schools work.
Two related issues that make a huge difference in public education quality are teacher salaries and property taxes as the foundation of school funding. Over the next couple of entries, we’ll take a look at how these interact and what needs to be done to improve these crucial, but seldom critically analyzed, educational factors. Let’s start with the smaller elements that have evolved that impact teacher salaries.
What teachers get paid is a matter of public record—not only can you find salary schedules for most school districts, but you can even look up specific salaries online.
How it works, though, is more important and problematic: In Illinois, we have essentially a three-tier system for teacher salaries. At the bottom of the financial pile are the kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) elementary districts. In the middle are the kindergarten through high school (K-12) unit districts. Finally, sitting atop the heap and garnering a disproportionate percentage of the resources are high school districts (9-12).
Illinois bases its school funding largely on property taxes (which we’ll discuss next time) and gives most of the control to individual school districts. Thus, an elementary school district can have a single building with only a couple of hundred students. Then there are massive unit districts with tens of thousands of students.
Now, I’m no expert on school funding, but to cut to the chase, high school districts pay the highest salaries, with unit districts a distant second and elementary schools trailing the pack. To use a couple of districts as illustrative examples (taken from the Illinois State Board of Education’s 2010-2011 salary study put out in April 2011, http://www.isbe.state.il.us/research/pdfs/teacher_salary_10-11.pdf), the salary range at Hinsdale South High School (where I work) was $50,481 (lowest teaching salary) to $121,674 (the maximum); unit district Naperville 203 went from $42,808 to $105,278 (18% and 15.5% lower than Hinsdale); and my daughters’ elementary school district, Center Cass 66, had a range of $40,671 to $80,112 (24% - 52% lower than Hinsdale and 5% - 31% less than Naperville).
There are several reasons for this disparity. The tax rates obviously favor the high schools; they just have more money to spend. I can only figure that it was determined back in the day that high school districts needed more money for extra-curricular activities, more expensive texts, mascot costumes…
I’m not really sure how anyone justified how much more it costs to educate a high school kid than a second-grader on the basis of different expenses, but our legislators have allowed this three-tier system to exist for the 32 years I’ve been teaching in Illinois. My colleague, friend, and Illinois Education Association (union) ex-President, Bob Haisman spent much of his six years in office during the late 1990s lobbying to change the system so that a more balanced, equitable formula could be established, but he wasn’t able to budge our Springfield legislators. So, while I don’t know how it came about, the high schools get more money per student than unit or elementary districts.
The make-up of teaching staffs also impacts teacher salaries. For most of America’s history, teaching was predominantly for women, with many going into teaching to supplement their families’ earnings. In other words, the teaching salaries were the starter or secondary incomes for the family — young women starting out until they married and left education to raise families, or moms going back to work after all the kids were in school.
Teaching as a career, however, has evolved from the upper grades down. Colleges demanded more education and dedication from their professors, and this emphasis on teaching as a “profession” has filtered to the lower grades over the years.
If school districts were going to demand more from their teachers, the teachers were smart enough to figure out that they should be getting something in return for the added expectations. Heads of households started going into education in larger numbers as the salaries and working conditions continued to improve. High schools definitely offered better financial opportunities and were more similar to colleges than elementary schools, so a larger percentage of primary earners wound up in grades 9-12.
Primary earners are much more likely to pursue improvements in salary schedules than those teaching only to supplement; as laws permitted and required more collective bargaining, the high school teachers more aggressively pushed their school districts to make things better. Because of this, the disparity in salaries has increased significantly during the last three decades in Illinois where the collective bargaining law was passed in 1983.
In general, teachers in high school unions made it a top priority to improve pay; elementary school unions were more passive and accepting of the status quo—current salaries reflect this difference. Thus, related to everything above, the teacher unions make a difference in the salaries of teachers. An activist, involved, dedicated, militant, hardcore, greedy (whatever term you’d like to use) union will get more money for its members than one that is cooperative, management-oriented, passive, gullible, weak (again, depending how you see it).
Guess which type is more likely at a high school versus an elementary district. That’s right; the high schools will push much harder than the elementary schools in most cases. So the combination of all these elements skews the salaries in favor of high school teachers.
These factors all have influenced the salary disparity between elementary, unit and high school teachers. It would be an exaggeration, however, to suggest that collective bargaining laws, militancy of unions, and secondary vs. primary income earners are the main reasons for the gap.
Elementary school district Hinsdale 181 (whose students feed into my Hinsdale 86 high school district) has a salary range of $47,838 to $116,246 (as listed in the same Illinois State Board of Education publication above) which places it relatively close to my district’s salary range, well ahead of Naperville and Center Cass.
So although activist unions and primary income earners do make a difference in teacher salaries—my high school colleagues are still making from 5% to 6% more than an elementary teacher in 181 with the same education and experience—the key reason for disparity in teacher salaries is local funding, as evidenced by property taxes. Next time, we’ll take a look at how those work so we can see how to do better in the way we fund our schools and pay our teachers.