Study says teacher pay is adequate, but is it fair?
An important issue at the heart of the debate on public education in Washington is in the hands of a rather obscure group.
The Compensation Technical Working Group is made up of some school administrators, school board members, policy experts and a teachers union lobbyist. They are charged with making recommendations on how and how much teachers will be paid.
One of their starting points is an analysis of current pay for teachers and other school employees by Texas A&M associate professor Lori Taylor, who has been analyzing state education pay since 2008. She compared Washington’s teacher pay to the compensation of state residents with comparable education levels.
“Total salaries are competitive in most of the state, and the fringe benefits appear unusually generous,” Taylor wrote. “As such, the total compensation packages offered by Washington school districts appear sufficient to attract and retain a high quality workforce.”
The magic words in this conclusion are “total salaries.” To Taylor that means both money the state sends to districts for teacher compensation and the money paid teachers from local levy proceeds.
By law, local levy money is not supposed to pay any cost of basic education. Levy money, instead, can be used only as compensation for extra time, responsibility and as incentives, also known as TRI pay. But districts have maintained for years that they have to use more and more levy money for basics, including basic teacher pay.
Taylor understands why. Her examination of the money sent by the state showed that it is often inadequate to offer competitive pay comparable to what other college graduates can earn in the same communities. Only by using levy dollars can many districts recruit and retain staff.
On one level, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Says Taylor, “When it gets to the teacher’s hands, it spends the same.”
But on a different and more important level, there is a difference. Both recent legislation and the 2012 McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court require that the state meet its constitutional duty to cover all costs for basic education. Because the state has an obligation to support public schools both adequately and uniformly, it can’t allow districts with more lucrative local levies to pay higher salaries and have more money for basic education than property poor districts.
Fixing this will shift the entire burden of teacher pay to the state.
Another Taylor recommendation might be just as controversial. She concludes that big-city districts and their surrounding suburbs face higher costs for teachers and other staff. Therefore, if the state takes on the role of covering all costs of delivering basic education, it should create a pay differential for urban districts.
The work group agrees. It has proposed that districts in King and Snohomish counties receive 8 percent to 9 percent more from the state to pay those teachers more. Districts in Pierce County would get an extra 1 percent to 4 percent.
But that’s not fair, respond educators from rural districts and even a superintendent from a district that might gain a bit from the differential. Seattle-area schools already have a hiring advantage over the rest of the state and have no trouble recruiting and retaining teachers.
Rural districts are considered property poor because they don’t have nearly the property values that urban areas do. Therefore, to get the same bang from a school levy, their tax rates must be set exponentially higher. Some can’t pass levies at all.
“In my view, this proposal takes another costly step forward in exponentially increasing already unconscionable inequities in the funding of our public schools,” wrote University Place Superintendent Patti Banks.
The state cannot claim to have a just system, Banks says, until “we are clear that a school district on the east side of the state deserves the same basic education funding as one on the east side of Lake Washington.”
Not only can Seattle-area districts pay more because of their more generous local levies, they put pressure on less-well-funded districts that are asked to match those pay levels when they bargain contracts with their local unions.
One member of the work group asked critics to be patient. Giving more money to urban districts won’t happen unless the levy money imbalance is also resolved, wrote Lake Washington School District Superintendent Chip Kimball.
He said it “would be absurd” to do one without the other. If TRI pay is not reformed, “the entire thing falls apart.”
Taylor agrees. Giving high-cost districts more state money for salaries while maintaining the pay advantages they already have via levy money would create its own inequities, something she termed a “double correction.”
Yet in its draft recommendations, which also cover aspects of teacher pay other than regional pay differentials, the work group says only that it is “still debating the regional cost of hiring allowance and its relationship to” TRI.
It has been difficult to reach a consensus, and any recommendation on reforming TRI will not be unanimous. Not only are some non-urban areas suspicious of regional pay differentials, the Washington Education Association insists that uses of local levy money be determined not by the state but by collective bargaining with local unions.
Any recommendations ultimately must be approved by the Legislature.
“I’m looking forward to solving this problem, but it will be hard,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter. “I see a path through, but there’s a lot of fog.”