2018 was a year of sharply increased militancy by teacher unions around the country with a relatively high number of strikes against public school districts. A strike for more money is currently underway in Los Angeles while the school district is already running a $500 million annual deficit. A strike against Denver Public Schools is imminent, unless an eleventh-hour agreement can break the negotiating deadlock between the teacher union and the district, with the current collective bargaining agreement expiring on January 18.
The union narrative everywhere in the country, echoed by the liberal media, is fundamentally that teachers are underpaid. If DPS or other Colorado school districts are hit with teacher strikes, taxpayers will get the bill for any consequent pay increases through local property tax hikes or state tax increases. So let me lay out some facts about overall teacher compensation and leave it you to judge. I don’t expect to persuade many teachers, after all almost everyone believes they’re underpaid, and this is their rice bowl.
Teacher compensation involves many more things than just their salaries but let’s start there. Among school districts in the metro area, starting salaries for teachers with just a bachelor’s degree average about $40,000 (at DPS it’s just under $43,000); a master’s degree kicks that up about 10 percent. From there, a salary grid dictates the increases throughout one’s career based on years of employment and added degree credits. A mid-career teacher makes about $60,000. At late career, it can be as much as $70,000 or even $90,000 in Cherry Creek Schools. The pay levels within the grid increase over time based on future contract agreements.
Salaries can be supplemented by additional duties and assignments. The DPS website gives examples of how this affects specific teachers under its ProComp salary structure. Jason, for example, in his fifth year of teaching bilingual-Spanish education, is paid an additional $9,300 above his $51,357 base for his work in hard-to-serve-and-staff, high-priority schools.
Yes, it’s hard to make ends meet in Denver’s expensive rental market at $40,000 a year for a single, rookie teacher. That’s why the institution of roommates was invented for the early years in this field and many others. Another alternative is to get married. It’s said that two can live as cheaply as one ─ kind of.
The big payoff for teachers comes at retirement. Their very lucrative PERA defined benefit pension plan is heavily back loaded. The retirement benefit of current teachers is calculated by crediting them 2.5% for every year of employment and then multiplying that by their HAS (highest average salary), that’s the average of their three highest paid years. For example, a teacher who was hired in 1979 at the age of 22, would have 40 years of service in 2019, and could retire at the age of 62. So, her multiplier would be 40 times 2.5%, which equals 100%. If her HAS is $80,000, her beginning annual pension benefit would be 100% of $80,000, subject to increases each year for inflation.
PERA supporters like to confuse the issue by reporting the average retirement pay of PERA members, which is much lower. Duh. Of course it’s lower, it includes the retirement pay of those who’ve worked relatively few years. PERA’s massive unfunded liability is due in large part to its back-loaded formula using highest average salary rather simply than the average salary over all the years of employment.
Over and above a district’s payroll, fringe benefits for teachers, including an excellent health insurance plan, add another 30% to a school district’s expenses, the biggest item of which is its payments to PERA that amount to between 21% and 26% of the gross pay of PERA members. This is why school budgets are so tight. If it weren’t for those huge payments to PERA, schools could substantially raise teacher pay immediately.
However, financially savvy teachers understand the investment wisdom and income tax benefits of taking less salary now in exchange for a PERA pot of gold at the end of their career rainbow. 70% of teachers are women and most of them are married in a two-income family. For them, deferring income and taxes is a sound retirement strategy and generally within their budget.
A school year is about 185 days. During that period, a typical teacher union contract gives teachers 18 days or so of paid leave for personal exigencies, sickness, mental health days, bereavement and comp days, much of which accumulates, if not taken, to be cashed in later. In a moment of candor a teacher once told me, only half kidding, that the two best reasons for going into teaching were July and August, to say nothing of spring break, winter break and non-classroom in-service days that conveniently fall on Fridays before a three-day weekend.
A public school day is commonly defined as 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. That’s 7¼ hours. But it’s not all classroom time. Subtract the 45-minute “duty free” lunch and the 45-minute contract-provided “planning period” and that takes it down to 5¾ hours. Teachers say they take work home with them. Sure they do. Welcome to the club. All competent professionals bring work home from the office.
Factoring in the value of all their fringe benefits, especially the projected value of their gold-plated PERA retirement plan, a mid-career teacher worth about $80,000 a year. But considering that teachers work the equivalent of an eight-month year, that $80,000 is $120,000 if annualized. I know that’s not their current cash flow, but leisure is worth a lot.
The unions equip striking teachers with signs saying “ON STRIKE ─ FOR OUR STUDENTS. Uh huh. This is for the media cameras to win sympathy from the public. While most teachers are surely concerned about their students, their number one priority is obviously themselves. If it were only about the students, they wouldn’t be striking. The teacher unions’ only concern is for the welfare of its members. And for the taxpayers not at all.
Teachers say they want to be treated as “professionals” but at the same time their union insists on a pay schedule that’s not tied to individual merit and performance but, rather, paying the best and the worst teachers the same on the basis of seniority and college credits of questionable value. Doctors, lawyers and athletes are professionals but the best of them are paid a premium according to their individual talent. I’d like to see the best teachers paid more and the worst ones paid less or not at all. But their union abhors competition among its members. Teachers enjoy iron-clad job security under tenure and their union’s collective bargaining agreement and have less performance pressure than salesmen.
Teachers knew coming in that there are higher paid professions. But, all things considered, they have a pretty nice employment and compensation package. They’re free to find better paying work if they can and others will come to take their place. I agree that teachers have an important and necessary job. But no more important in our society than many, many others like soldiers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, entrepreneurs, clergy, etc.
Public school teachers enjoy a monopoly on the delivery of compulsory taxpayer-funded education in government schools. As such, it’s unethical for them to strike. It ought to be illegal.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.