Understanding teacher union contract salary schedules

With news that the St. Paul Federation of Educators has authorized a strike vote, I wanted to write (again) about how salary increases work under the union’s salary schedule within collective bargaining contracts.

Often, the focus during contract negotiations is on the pay raise percent or dollar amount that the local union is asking the district for. (For example, the St. Paul teachers’ union is asking for a $7,500 pay increase, as well as a 7.5 percent pay raise in the second year of the contract.)

But this increase doesn’t reflect the pay increases already built into the union’s salary formula.

Commonly called the “steps and lanes” progression, pay increases are built into the salary schedule for the first 20-or-so years of a teacher’s career. The “steps” in a teacher salary schedule are the number of years a teacher has been teaching, and the “lanes” are the level of education the teacher has. Under union salary schedules, teachers earn automatic raises for each additional year of experience up to the top of the scale and can also earn more money by pursuing additional education credits and degrees.

As a result, a school district’s salary costs rise every year. This automatic increase gets paired with whatever increase to the base salary the union negotiates with the district. (The average St. Paul teacher salary was $87,250 during the 2022-23 school year, according to data from the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.)

This is not to say that teachers don’t have a right to ask the school district for higher wages and make their case to taxpayers, parents, and the school board. I taught in a state that pays teachers one of the lowest average teacher salaries in the country, and I am very supportive of ensuring good teachers are paid well.

It is important, though, to understand how salary increases work under the union’s salary schedule, not only for transparency purposes but also to perhaps reevaluate how teachers are compensated. While it can vary by district, typically under the salary schedule teachers with the same years of service and education level make the same amount — regardless of what they teach or how well they teach.

Such a rigid approach to compensation no doubt ends up underpaying great teachers (or overpaying less effective ones).

For the Dallas school district, replacing salary scales based on experience and educational attainment with those based on evaluation scores has resulted in positive and significant effects on student math and reading achievement that increase over time. A 2020 meta-analysis of 37 studies, 26 of which were conducted in the United States, also found that teacher merit pay has a positive and statistically significant effect on student achievement.