Teacher Vanessa Ford takes a break to visit with students Silvia Gutierrez, 6, and her brother, Julian Gutierrez, 9, while unpacking her classroom at Maury Elementary School on Monday in Washington. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

Teachers in the District’s traditional public schools earn more than their counterparts at nearly every D.C. charter school, according to a Washington Post review of teacher salaries across the city, with many city teachers earning salaries that are thousands of dollars higher.

School officials say high pay is a key part of the city’s strategy for attracting talented people to teach in some of the nation’s most challenging schools. For charters, however, it creates an additional challenge. Unable to match the school system’s salaries, many charters instead rely on other factors to recruit and retain candidates, including small class sizes, professional development opportunities and strongly defined missions and cultures.

The wide variation of school environments and pay scales shows how the District has become a closely watched experiment in its use of charters and school choice, not just for parents seeking the right education for their children, but also for teachers seeking work. Charters now enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s public school students, and they are growing.

The pay difference is largely the result of a landmark 2010 union contract, in which traditional public school teachers gave up longstanding job protections in return for 20 percent raises over five years, plus merit bonuses. Although that contract pushed many charters to increase wages, almost every charter’s minimum, average and maximum salaries lag behind traditional schools.

“Teaching is one of the hardest jobs — period, the end,” Chancellor Kaya Henderson said. “And teaching in D.C. Public Schools is even more difficult than in some other places where conditions might be more ideal. We want to be a place where people want to come and want to stay and not worry how they’re going to take care of themselves.”

Starting and maximum teacher salaries are higher in the D.C. school system than in nearly every charter school.

The school system’s minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience was $51,539 in 2011-12. More than two dozen of the city’s charters started their salaries at less than $43,000 that year, the Post review found. Some charters’ maximum pay was below the average pay in the city’s traditional schools.

DCPS teachers can earn a maximum base pay of $106,540 plus bonuses of up to $25,000 each year, far higher than the best-paid teacher at many charters, most of which have maximum base salaries of less than $80,000.

The District’s average teacher pay of $77,512 in 2013 is the highest in the region. Montgomery County is second, at $74,855; Fairfax County is sixth, at $64,813.

D.C. public charters operate as independent school districts, not tethered to the teachers union and free to set salaries and hiring standards. Although charters receive the same per-student tax funding, they do not get some of the government resources that benefit the traditional school system. That has contributed to charters touting intangible benefits instead of high salaries.

“It really is that whole ecosystem of things that make our schools special that contribute to being attractive to teachers,” said Rick Cruz, chief executive of D.C. Prep, a local charter network.

Vanessa Ford, who is beginning her 12th year in the classroom, spent most of her career working in D.C. charters. She said she was happy earning lower pay in exchange for workplaces that offered more leadership and growth opportunities.

But then she had two children, and pay became a “determining factor.” She found a job teaching science at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill, a position she found professionally exciting. It was in her neighborhood and offered $15,000 more than her previous job at Imagine Hope Community Charter School.

This year her salary will top $80,000.

“I needed to help support my family. D.C. is an expensive place,” Ford said. “And DCPS is making it a little easier.”

Other District educators make the opposite move, leaping from the school system to a lower-paying job in a charter. Some are seeking more autonomy in the classroom or stronger school leadership, while others are excited about the chance to create something new.

“A lot of teachers have come here because they have an innovative spirit,” said Dahlia Aguilar, principal at Mundo Verde, a charter school that combines bilingual education with a focus on environmental sustainability and project-based instruction known as “expeditionary learning.”

Aguilar, previously an assistant principal in the D.C. school system, joined Mundo Verde — which opened in 2011 — because the chance to create a unique school intrigued her. The move meant a pay cut, but “the innovation made it feel like an opportunity versus a loss,” she said.

Data about charter school employees and salaries are thin, largely because charters — which are nonprofit organizations — are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The D.C. Public Charter School Board asks schools to disclose their minimum, maximum and average teacher salaries in annual reports, but some decline to do so. D.C. Public Schools’ salaries are publicly available.

The school system’s high salaries came with former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s effort to push out ineffective educators and bring in outstanding ones. But private donations that initially funded the pay raises and bonuses dried up in 2012, and city taxpayers have now shouldered the costs. School budgets have been squeezed and class sizes have grown.

Last year, the school system balanced its budget only after the D.C. Council approved an extra allocation of $21 million, part of which was needed for teacher salaries. Charter schools didn’t get the same infusion. Charters also must pay for lawyers and other services that DCPS gets for free from other D.C. agencies.

That is frustrating for charters that lose good teachers to higher-paying schools, said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools. “You want to be competitive, you want to compensate your teachers for all that they’re doing — and you can’t,” she said.

Charter leaders said pay might also be lower because charters are young institutions that employ many teachers who are closer to the beginning than the end of their careers. The first charter opened in the District in 1996.

Still, some charters have stayed competitive.

“We want to make sure that we are toward the top of the market,” said Allison Fansler, president of prominent charter network KIPP DC. “It’s very clear to us that great schools come from great teachers, so that is a priority for us.”

(Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is on the KIPP DC board of trustees.)

KIPP DC pays its teachers-in-training a starting salary of $42,400, with teachers starting at $55,856, higher than the District. Maximum pay at KIPP DC is more than $92,000.

KIPP DC officials said candidates are attracted not just by money, but because employees are zealous about changing students’ lives.

Despite the traditional school system’s pay, teacher turnover is still high, with about 20 percent leaving each year because of dissatisfaction with workload, school culture and evaluations linked to test scores, according to a recent study.

Araceli Flores said she didn’t get the training she needed to be successful when she was teaching at a low-performing DCPS school in Southeast Washington. She now works at D.C. Prep, where she said there is more support. “I was more than happy to take the pay cut to develop myself as a teacher,” she said.

Erin Thesing took a pay cut of close to $10,000 to take a job at Capital City Public Charter School. She had previously worked at a Philadelphia charter with a record of raising test scores among poor children, where she found that the teaching was formulaic and students weren’t learning to think independently.

At Capital City she found a place where teaching is creative and intellectually stimulating, and where learning is defined more broadly than by test scores. “I came here and I re-fell in love with teaching,” she said, and she has no plans to leave.

But she hasn’t ruled out applying to the D.C. public school system someday. Her salary as a fourth-year teacher at Capital City is in the mid-$50,000s, which works for now, at age 25. But the calculus might change when she’s ready to start a family or buy a home.

“I really credit the District,” Thesing said. “They’re showing with a dollar sign that this is a job for a long time.”