What gets left out of the teacher pay debate

I taught in the lowest paying state for the average teacher salary when adjusted for wage and cost-of-living differences, so I can empathize with concern over teacher pay. There are excellent teachers who are underpaid, and there are cases of poor teachers getting paid too much, if they should be getting paid at all. Then there is administrative bloat, which doesn’t help, as that eats up dollars that would otherwise find their way to classroom educators. Additionally, there is also the problem of too much teacher compensation tied up in benefits, which shrinks take-home pay.

These are some of the biggest challenges facing teacher compensation, and I believe they get left out of the teacher pay debate. And they won’t be fixed through inefficient across-the-board pay increases, as I discussed here.

Those pay increases, which can be the product of teacher union strikes, aren’t typically framed using complete numbers. Because there is often very little explanation from unions to the general public on how teacher salary increases actually work, not all may realize that there are built-in annual increases outside of the salary increases teacher unions strike for.

Teachers certainly have a right to ask the school district for higher wages and make their case to taxpayers, parents, and the school board. However, the way the union has framed the salary increase debate doesn’t paint the full picture, and that is what will be discussed below.

Teacher salaries

The most recent example of a teachers’ union leading a strike for wage increases is the March 2022 strike in the Minneapolis school district. The local teachers’ union pressured the district into agreeing to a two-year collective bargaining contract that is a leading factor in the district going bankrupt. Huge pay increases for FY22 and FY23 were agreed to, which are on top of the automatic increases that already exist.

Called a “steps and lanes schedule,” this is the most common salary structure for teachers. 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 (which is typically around 20 years of service) and can also earn more money by pursuing additional education credits and degrees. Upon completion of 24 years of teaching, teachers receive an annual stipend in addition to their salary, referred to as a longevity stipend.

Staying with the Minneapolis school district example, the union’s approved tentative agreement for the 2021-2023 teacher contract includes a 2 percent increase to the expired salary schedule for 2021-2022 and then a 3 percent increase to that salary schedule for 2022-2023. Again, those increases are on top of the salary increases built into step and lane progression.

Let’s put some numbers to this. Say a teacher started her first year of teaching in the district fall 2021, which is covered under the new salary schedule from the strike. As a first-year teacher, she is considered to be in “step one” under the teacher salary schedule. Her salary for that year was $45,370 — which is the 2 percent increase from what it would have been had she started under the expired salary schedule.

For her second year of teaching, fall 2022, she is now in “step two” and receives the 3 percent increase the union negotiated for the 2021-2022 salary schedule in addition to the increase that she automatically received from the step and lane progression for adding another year of teaching under her belt. This amounts to $47,920, which is a salary increase of 5.6 percent.

Remember, had the union agreed to keep the salary schedule that was in place before the strike, our teacher example would have still received a salary increase from one year to the next because it is built into the salary schedule.

The above percent increases for our teacher example are also assuming the teacher did not pursue additional education. Say that during her second year of teaching she also took 15 semester units/hours. She moved to “step two” for her teaching experience, but then also moved to “lane 2” for her education. This would increase her salary 8.2 percent.

Again, this is not to say that an argument can’t be made for teacher salary increases, but it is to show that more transparency on the actual increases teachers see on their paychecks is needed.


What did I get right? What did I miss? Share your thoughts on the teacher pay debate below.