In California, public school teachers’ salaries primarily are based upon two things: experience (years spent teaching) and education (degree attained and amount of college credit). For example, a teacher with the minimum required education and no prior experience may make $38,000, while a teacher with a PhD and no prior experience might make $43,000, and a third-year teacher with a PhD might make $48,000. (I just made up these numbers, although they’re fairly realistic.)
For those of you unfamiliar with California public education: teacher salary is usually set by a school district, and primarily is funded by local property taxes. So, while most districts tend to adopt similar salary schedules based on education and experience, the specific salaries teachers receive varies greatly from district to district. When I was a first-year Oakland Unified teacher with no prior experience, I made $38,000; meanwhile, the Acalanes Unified High School District, located in the towns immediately to Oakland’s east (and where I went to high school), awards $44,000 to its first-year teachers.
A district like AUHSD is able to be much more discerning in teacher hiring, for a number of reasons. First, of course, is the greater salary. When you couple this with all the social and material advantages this upper-middle-class community can provide, the AUHSD can create the premier public education career for dedicated teachers.
Another funny thing is that the AUHSD actually has very few inexperienced teachers. It’s quite common for a teacher to get his/her feet wet in a lower-paying, lower-achieving school district in the area, and then bump up to a posher district once the teacher gets good. You could practically consider local districts like Oakland, West Contra Costa, and Mt. Diablo to essentially be the farm teams for the major league of AUHSD and San Ramon Valley USD. Train in the trenches, and you might just make it to The Show.
I propose that California abandon this piecemeal compensation and replace it with a uniform salary schedule across the state. If this were to occur, teachers with the same credentials would make the same salary, no matter what community they served.
Wealthier communities don’t need to attract the best teachers with higher salaries, as they already feature easier classroom management, more involved families, healthier students, and all sorts of other phenomena that make their jobs much easier. Poorer districts scare away teachers for a multitude of reasons, and the salary discrepancy just makes things worse.
Moreover, adopting this uniform salary would help rural schools attract more and younger teachers. Our truly rural schools north of Sonoma and in the Central Valley and High Desert have an exceptionally difficult time recruiting new, top talent, and feel the specter of a retiring teacher pool even more acutely than our urban and suburban districts. However, our rural communities also have much lower costs of living. If these schools were able to provide the same salaries as their urban counterparts, they could lure more teachers with the promise of significantly higher disposable income and property ownership.
Also, if all districts paid at the same rate, teachers would have fewer incentives to jump ship from their original schools. Decreasing teacher turnover would lead to stronger school/teacher/community ties, heightened institutional memory, easier classroom management, and more consistent and transparent academic and classroom management standards. This also would minimize hiring and recruitment inefficiencies — schools are continually hiring, while underpaid teachers are masters of the Craigslist Refresh. Can you imagine how much more we could get done if all of us didn’t spend half our lives looking longingly at resumes and employment listings?
So, how do we make this happen? Schools get much of their funding from local property taxes. How can Emeryville and Moraga offer the same salaries when their median family incomes differ by $80,000?
It’s simple: take all of the state’s property taxes, throw them into one big pool, and pay teachers out of this centralized state fund. This wouldn’t even require much new organization, since the state already pays districts a certain amount of money per student per day. We could take this already-existing state infrastructure and let them deal with all of the paychecks, instead of cutting checks to cities that cut checks to districts that cut checks to contractors and people.
Furthermore, all public school teachers are members of their district, state, and national unions. Currently, local unions spend a significant chunk of their time negotiating compensation, month after month, year after year. If we standardized teacher pay across the state, we could have just the California Educators’ Association negotiate salary, freeing up local unions to take care of local business.
We have the necessary infrastructure; all we need to do is re-arrange how our money comes in and goes out, and who gets to negotiate salaries. Standardizing teacher salaries across the state would result in increased efficiency, decreased teacher turnover, minimized administrative costs, and, most important, better public education for all California children. Let’s make it happen!