CPS teachers out-earn many in other districts, but union says pay isn’t the whole picture and numbers can be misleading
By Kim Geiger
Oct 11, at AM
In their push for a new contract with reduced class sizes and more support staff, Chicago teachers have twice rejected pay raise proposals from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, keeping the dispute over wages alive in an attempt to force the issue on their other priorities.
While Lightfoot has tried to entice the union into an agreement by arguing that her proposals would make CPS teachers among the highest paid in the country, a Tribune analysis of state and national salary data shows that the district’s teachers already out-earn most of their public school colleagues.
The starting CPS teacher salary of $52, is the highest for unit school districts in Illinois. Just five Illinois districts out-pay CPS in starting salary, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, and they are all high school districts in wealthy suburbs: Glenbrook, Maine Township, Evanston, Lyons and New Trier. When adjusted for cost of living, the starting salary at CPS is also higher than those at the country’s other large public school districts in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, according to data compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The midcareer salary for CPS teachers with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree is $82,, considerably higher than in suburban unit districts such as Aurora-based Indian Prairie, which pays $67,, and Plainfield District , which pays $55, Adjusted for cost of living, CPS teachers in this category earn roughly $10, more than teachers in New York, almost $20, more than teachers in Los Angeles and around $30, more than teachers in Miami, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality data.
The earning advantage in Chicago diminishes as the district’s teachers age. The maximum CPS teacher salary of $,, which doesn’t include pension contributions, is eclipsed in places like Elmwood Park ($,) and at Oak Lawn Community High School ($,). Still, CPS tops the charts among large urban districts, slightly edging out New York and Los Angeles when cost of living is factored in.
"Comparing Chicago to other large school districts across the nation, its teacher salaries are better than most,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Not only are its starting salaries quite competitive, salaries increase at a faster rate than happens elsewhere.”
Most CPS teachers also out-earn their fellow workers in Chicago, where median household income is $57,, according to census data. Under the current contract, a teacher who works the standard day school year, or just shy of 42 weeks, earns $58, by year five.
With enrollment of around ,, CPS is the third-largest school district in the country. New York has the biggest district, with nearly 1 million students, followed by Los Angeles, which has , students. Right behind CPS, with , students, is Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
There are about 19, full-time employees of CPS who are identified as teachers in their job title, including regular teachers, bilingual teachers, special education teachers, speech pathologist teachers and citywide teachers. Of that group, the average salary is $78, and the average benefit cost is $27,, according to a Tribune analysis of CPS employee data.
By comparison, in Clark County, Nevada, home to the country’s fifth-largest school district with enrollment of around ,, median household income is $57, Teachers there earn a starting salary of $41, and top out at $93, The average teacher salary is $60,, and the average benefit cost is $26,, a district spokesman said.
CTU contends that its teachers are paid modestly, especially given the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree.
“I would say $54, a year is not a gargantuan salary,” said CTU spokeswoman Chris Geovanis.
CPS teachers are also unique in that they, like all city employees, are required to live in the city, where the cost of living can be more expensive than in the surrounding suburbs. The residency rule, which was designed to keep middle-class public worker salaries in the local economy, does not exist at most other school districts.
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The rule is especially tricky for paraprofessionals like teacher assistants, who earn far less. A Tribune analysis of CPS data found that the district employs about 1, teacher assistants who earn average salaries of $34, and almost 4, special education classroom assistants whose average salary is around $36,
Lightfoot’s most recent offer would increase wages for teachers and paraprofessionals by 16% over five years. That means that a second-year teacher’s salary would grow from $53, in to more than $72, in , when factoring in the raise and so-called step increases many teachers receive annually, according to CPS. The average teacher salary would grow to nearly $,, the district said.
“We believe teachers should be properly compensated for their work and dedication and we’re proud to be a national leader when it comes to teacher compensation,” the district wrote in a letter detailing its latest contract proposal.
The CTU says the district’s figures are misleading because they focus on salary growth that would be realized by the current average teacher rather than the average teacher in five years. The CTU contends that when turnover is factored in, the CPS workforce has maintained an average experience level of around 10 years.
Under Lightfoot’s proposal, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience today would see his or her salary increase to $95, by year five of the contract. That amount is $11,, or 13%, more than the current teacher with 15 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree earns today. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience today would go from a salary of $58, to a salary of $81, in five years. That’s about $6, more than the $75, earned today by a similar teacher, or an increase of about 2% each year.
“That doesn’t keep pace with the rate of inflation,” Geovanis said.
“And it’s not just about money,” she added, “because there are other significant sticking points at the table on which CPS has absolutely refused to budge,” like prep time for elementary school teachers and caps on class sizes.
The union wants a 15% salary increase over three years, which would increase teacher salaries quicker than the Lightfoot proposal.
The union also argues that teachers in the six largest unionized school districts in the country have seen higher wage raises since than have CPS teachers.
Research shows that higher teacher salaries are associated with better quality education because schools are able to attract teachers who might otherwise have gone into other professions, said Kirabo Jackson, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.
“The mechanism that’s at play is when you have higher salaries, you’re able to attract people who would be effective in the classroom from other professions, when the teacher pay is high relative to other professions,” Jackson said. “People who were hired during a recession year, when other salaries were low relative to what teaching is, they perform better.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said that her latest offer to the city’s teachers will make them among the highest-paid educators in the country.
The union has disregarded her offer, insisting the city lower class sizes, add support staff and put those guarantees in writing.
But salary and benefits remain critical, because they are among the few issues that a law permits the Chicago Teachers Union to strike over.
Related: A tale of two walkouts: Can Chicago learn from past teacher strikes?
Under the current Chicago union contract, beginning teachers make a base salary of just over $56, a year, while the most senior teachers with extra credentials make $, a year.
Chicago district officials have characterized their current salary offer to teachers — a 16% cost-of-living raise over a five-year contract, with 3% in each of the first three years and % annually in the next two years — as generous and even “historic.”
The union wants more faster: a 5% annual raise in a three-year contract.
The district is offering to cover health insurance premiums, which are estimated to increase 6% annually, and to keep costs flat for teachers for the first three years.
“This is a significant benefit for CPS teachers and staff,” Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson wrote on a blog post earlier this week. “Under this offer, teachers will continue to enjoy these benefits for five years at about the same rate they are paying now.”
When factoring in steps and lanes — the automatic hikes that teachers get for longevity and educational credits — how will the salary of Chicago teachers match their counterparts in other major urban areas?
In , the last school year for which comparable data is available, Chicago ranked toward the top in pay for more experienced teachers — a master’s degree holder with 10 years of experience, for example — and 22nd out of the largest districts for a first-year teacher. The ranking was compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan policy and research center.
Kency Nittler, the organization’s teacher policy director, said, “Chicago teachers in comparison to other teachers in large districts are being paid relatively well.”
She said that the district’s offer to teachers is solid, and not outside the bounds of what districts regularly offer in negotiations.
Nittler added that, in a difficult work environment, raises may not be enough to retain teachers. That echoes the argument the Chicago Teachers Union has been making in calling for smaller class sizes and more support staff, such as nurses, social workers, and special education case managers.
“Those (calls) are coming from a place of ‘your salary alone is not enough,’” she said.
On pay, the latest public statements indicate the union and City Hall still differ. The union wants to increase the number of steps — to 25 — at which teachers will earn automatic raises for longevity.
But the two sides are apparently nearing agreement on higher minimum salaries for teacher aides and on instituting a schedule of automatic raises — like the “steps and lanes” hikes that teachers get for experience and educational credits.
The district also is offering to raise salaries on average by more than 8% for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, with an immediate 14% pay hike for hard-to-staff nurse positions.
So what are the signs of a “good” deal? Experts are divided — often by their politics — on the answer.
Daniel DiSalvo, of the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, said any pay raise or reduction in class size is a win for teachers because it makes teaching better compensated and less difficult.
“If you are reducing class sizes at the same time you are increasing pay, it’s extra generous,” DiSalvo said. He noted that some cuts to public education have been forced on states and districts by ballooning costs of rescuing underwater teacher pension funds.
Others argue that it will take significant pay bumps to compensate for decades of stagnant teacher wages and sometimes deep budget cuts to education.
Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that teacher salaries must be seen in a broader economic context. She points out that in the s teaching was a relatively well-paid job for women when they had fewer opportunities. Now, women can choose among better paid and competitive jobs, so districts may need to offer more to attract quality candidates.
Pay was key in the wildcat teachers strikes that swept through Arizona, West Virginia and North Carolina last year. Denver teachers struck last winter over how and how much the district paid them. In Los Angeles, teachers rejected the district’s offer for retroactive raises, went on strike, and then essentially agreed to the same pay deal as before, but one that was sweetened by an increase in support services and lower class sizes.
U.S. teachers earn 60% less than workers in other professions requiring comparable education levels, according to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It’s a phenomenon Allegretto calls the teacher pay penalty.
Some Chicago teachers say the job is impossible not because of low wages but because they feel overwhelmed by paperwork and struggling with too few resources to meet the complicated needs of their students.
That sentiment has been a consistent thread in the run-up to the strike and will likely be a theme on Wednesday night, when the union’s member House of Delegates votes to set a possible strike date.
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Correction: This story was updated to say that Chicago’s first-year teacher pay ranks the district 22nd among the largest urban districts, not toward the bottom. Chalkbeat regrets the error.
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