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Comparatively Speaking, How Much K-12 Spending Goes to Teacher Salaries?

My friend Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute in Washington, posed three intriguing questions the other day.

  • “Even when calculated in constant dollars, and even after the Great Recession, the U.S. is spending dramatically more money per pupil than in decades past, yet teacher salaries have barely kept pace with inflation: Where is the money going, if not into salaries?”
  • “How much could we pay teachers if we prioritized higher salaries instead?”
  • And which states “have chosen to put the additional dollars into higher salaries instead of other options, such as smaller classes, employee healthcare and retiree benefits, or additional staff, especially.”

Focusing here on the first two, Petrilli makes it clear he doesn’t have adequate answers, and acknowledges how, in addition to funding pressures noted right above, things such as special education and administration also have competed for K-12 dollars.  But his approach, employing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, offers a novel and valuable take on public elementary and secondary spending since 1989-90.

Keeping calculations simple and using 2016-17 inflation-adjusted dollars, he compares the “average teacher salary for a given school year to average per-pupil spending, and call(s) it the ‘salary to spending ratio.’”  The higher the “ratio” (what I call a “quotient” instead), the larger the share of spending going to teacher salaries rather than other expenses.

So, for the nation in 1989-90, teacher salaries averaged $59,944 and per-pupil spending averaged $9,731, resulting in a salary-to-spending quotient of 6.2.  (Which is to say $59,944 divided by $9,731.)

A decade later in 1999-2000, teacher salaries averaged $59,924 and per-pupil spending averaged $10,837, resulting in a diminished salary-to-spending quotient of 5.5.

Another decade later in 2009-10, teacher salaries averaged $61,804 and per-pupil spending averaged $13,082, resulting in a further diminished salary-to-spending quotient of 4.7.

And a half-dozen years after that in 2015-16, teacher salaries averaged $59,426 and per-pupil spending averaged $13,139, resulting in an even weaker salary-to-spending quotient of 4.5.

What about Minnesota compared to the nation?

Teacher salaries here in 2015-16 averaged $57,960 and per-pupil spending averaged $13,713, resulting in a lower quotient of 4.2.

For surrounding states, salary-to-spending quotients were 3.5 in North Dakota; 4.2 in South Dakota; 4.3 in Wisconsin; and 4.5 in Iowa.

One final set of calculations: What if average teacher salaries had kept up with increases in average per-pupil spending over the quarter-century between 1989-90 and 2015-16 (in 2017-18 inflation-adjusted dollars this time)?

For the nation, average teacher salaries would have grown to $80,938.

In Minnesota, average teacher salaries would have grown to $86,852.

For surrounding states, new average salaries would have grown to $57,537 in South Dakota; $72,458 in Wisconsin; $72,467 in Iowa; and $78,241 in North Dakota.  All measurably lower than Minnesota’s $86,852.

Petrilli finishes off his fascinating analysis by acknowledging how it’s just a start.  But “in the meantime,” he writes, “when someone complains that teacher salaries are not high enough, you should agree with them.  But next explain that the problem in most places isn’t overall education spending – it’s how we choose to invest our dollars.”  Agreed.

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