Ari Armstrong, Education, Featured, Media, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Behind those misleading headlines on Colorado teacher pay

“Colorado teachers earn 36% less than other college-educated workers, the worst gap in the country,” claims the Colorado Sun. “Colorado teachers have the largest pay disparity in the country,” declares 9News. “Colorado has highest pay gap for educators in the U.S.,” says Colorado Newsline.

These headlines are highly misleading. The claims are technically correct according to the peculiar measures of the study on which they are based, yet they obscure important facts.

My claim here is not that teachers in Colorado make great money; they do not. I’ll talk about that in a bit. My starting remarks pertain only to the usefulness of the study in question and to the news media’s presentation of the study’s findings.

The first thing to notice is that the study comes from the Economic Policy Institute, “an independent, nonprofit think tank” that draws partly on funding from teachers’ unions and other unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Obviously this organization is going to produce papers that support more tax funding for public schools and that play up how rough public school teachers have it.

This is not a strong criticism; Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute, “an independent, nonprofit think tank” that draws on conservative and libertarian funding and that tends to produce materials supportive of conservative and libertarian policies. Yet we should approach the study at hand knowing what particular axe its author and publisher wish to grind.

Flawed comparisons

The biggest problem with the study is that it compares the salaries of teachers to the salaries of relatively high-earning Coloradans often working in fields of science and technology. Wow, what a shocker that someone with a chemistry or engineering degree from the School of Mines who takes an industry job earns more than someone with a typical teaching degree. (Mines does offer “a BS in Engineering with a STEM Teaching focus area.”)

Notably, Colorado is near the top of median household income, coming in eleventh at $72,331, according to World Population Review. Maryland is first at $84,805, while Mississippi is last at $45,081.

As the EPI study measures things, a teacher with exactly the same standard of living is deemed worse off simply by virtue of living around higher earners. That’s ridiculous. If anything, teachers’ lives are better, not worse, by virtue of living around a bunch of relatively wealthier people. By EPI’s absurd accounting, if everyone in Colorado besides teachers suddenly lost half their revenues, Colorado teachers would move higher in the rankings.

Chalkbeat handles the nuances well. The fourth paragraph of its article clarifies: “But this [wage comparison] doesn’t mean Colorado teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. Colorado teachers earn below the national average, according to annual data collected by the National Education Association, but they’re roughly in the middle of the pack.” For obvious reasons, click-oriented and ideological publications shy away from such bland headlines as, “Colorado teachers in the middle of pack in pay.”

The document that Chalkbeat cites from the NEA (the same organization that helped fund the EPI report) shows that Colorado teachers rank 26th for 2020–21 at $58,183, compared to the U.S. average of $65,293. The highest is New York at $90,222, while the lowest is (again) Mississippi at $46,862. The big finding is that, starting in 2019, teachers’ salaries are not keeping up with inflation. Of course other people also are having trouble with inflation, but EPI says it’s worse for teachers.

Chalkbeat helpfully paraphrases the author of the study, Sylvia Allegretto, as saying that “more highly paid workers in other fields” contribute to “Colorado’s gap.” Chalkbeat also paraphrases another economist, Phyllis Resnick, as pointing out that “the variation in the jobs mix in each state serves as a major driver of the gap.”

About that pay ‘gap’

The next problem with the presentation of the EPI study is that it leads with raw numbers for a pay “gap”—and this is what most of the headlines picked up—but then clarifies that benefits account for around 40% of the “gap.” The paper explains, “The benefits advantage for teachers has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty. The teacher total [national] compensation penalty was 14.2% in 2021 (a 23.5% wage penalty offset by a 9.3% benefits advantage).”

You might be wondering, don’t teachers on average work fewer hours relative to people in other, higher-paid professions, what with summers and more holidays off or on reduced workload? Allegretto claims in a footnote, “We provide evidence that teachers work weekly hours similar to those of other professionals.” But if you look at the cited 2019 paper that Allegretto coauthors, you’ll find that she offers weak evidence for the point. She barely addresses the issue, saying she wants to avoid “an unproductive debate about the number of hours teachers work compared with other professionals.”

She offers one piece of relevant evidence, a 2012 Gates Foundation article claiming that “teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day,” but that doesn’t account for number of days per year worked. (The 2012 paper relies on survey responses. A person might suspect that these self-reported numbers might be a little like reports from Lake Wobegon.) Another oldish study (2014) suggests that “teachers work an average of 34.5 hours per week on an annual basis (38.0 hours per week during the school year and 21.5 hours per week during the summer months).” Education Week says teachers work more, especially during the pandemic. Anyway, I’m not sure what hours for Colorado teachers look like compared to hours for higher-paying jobs, but the issue seems relevant. We’re talking about averages; some teachers put in a lot more hours than others.

Regarding the salary comparisons, Chalkbeat continues, “For Allegretto, that’s a strength of her approach. Fewer people are going into teacher preparation programs, with one reason being that young people see they can earn more in other professions. Comparing teachers with other workers in their state, who face similar cost of living, rather than with teachers in other states, gives a better sense of what people are giving up to go into education.”

Rethink the government monopoly

There is something to this point, of course. If we had anything resembling a market in education, schools would, if they needed to, increase how much they pay teachers in order to attract more talent, and pass on the costs via higher tuition (or more fundraising or whatever). I think that, in a real market, teachers probably would make more on average, and salaries would range more widely depending on skill.

Given that most teachers work for the government’s monopoly system of education, it would seem that the only way to increase teacher pay is to direct more tax dollars to teachers. That’s what EPI and its water-carriers in the media would have you believe. But not so fast. Maybe we could direct more of existing funds to teachers. The Colorado Department of Education says that the average per-pupil funding is $9,014 for 2021–22 and that the pupil-to-teacher ratio is 17.1 (to one).

That means that around $154,000 is available per classroom, but teachers make only around $58,000 (talking averages). Obviously teachers need things like school buildings and supplies, but are the relevant government agencies really spending our educational dollars as effectively as they could? That’s a little hard for me to believe at first glance, but I’d like to see a detailed accounting.

We could always consider more-radical approaches to transition the system of government-monopoly schools to something resembling a free market. Then teachers would be more likely to be paid what their work is worth. Maybe the government-monopoly schools offer many teachers a level of security. But, as perhaps more teachers are coming to realize, such security comes at a price, and one measured not only in dollars.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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