The union’s president had been arguing that you “get what you pay for,” so if you want good schools, you have to pay for them, which sounded reasonable enough. But what wasn’t reasonable was politicians systematically hiding from the public what teachers are paid, especially senior teachers.
From academic surveys, we know the public routinely underestimates the actual compensation paid to teachers and that support for higher teacher compensation drops when taxpayers discover their actual compensation. That’s the motive for hiding teacher compensation data.
But first things first. Why are senior teachers more deserving of increased pay than junior teachers, and how large is the current pay gap between them? Amazingly, in the county’s recent smoke-and-mirrors tax debate, these questions weren’t asked.
Consider that presidential candidates often lament that women earn 20 percent less than men — without even controlling for occupation. Contrast that with Anne Arundel County’s much greater pay gap between junior (starting) and senior teachers. Using cash accounting, the pay gap between the bottom and top teachers reaches 59 percent; using accrual accounting (which includes deferred compensation earned in the current fiscal year), the gap reaches an astounding 95 percent (but only during the year senior teachers reach their “pension cliff,” usually after 30 years of experience). The latter gap is analogous to the difference in pay between corporate chief executives and their average workers.
The greater the turnover of junior teachers — encouraged by low pay and poor work conditions — the more money is left to pay senior teachers, which helps explain why almost half of starting teachers leave the system within five years and why senior teachers nationwide so rarely leave until they reach their pension cliff. The untenured junior teachers don’t fight this system because they know, given senior teachers’ control over the union, it would be not only a fruitless battle but also one that would invite personal retribution.
Between 2008 and 2017, I regularly listened to the candidates running for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and compared their stated priorities with their actual priorities after taking office. The differences were striking, including their teacher paypriorities. When running for office, the statistic they most commonly cited was the salary of a teacher at the bottom of the salary schedule, never one at the top, let alone a teacher’s total compensation package. But after they won office, they prioritized increasing senior teacher pay. For example, they massively increased the number of steps for senior teachers and helped make it harder for new teachers — as opposed to senior teachers — to receive retirement health-care and pension benefits.
The costs of the bulk of the step increases were cleverly deferred to the future, and, when they came due, proved unaffordable without making massive cuts elsewhere in the budget. The recent tax debate was thus driven by senior teachers who asserted that they were cheated out of step increases that they were promised years ago.
In January, Maryland’s Kirwan Commission report called for $3.8 billion a year in increased education spending in Maryland, including a bevy of compensation increases for various classes of senior teachers. So far, only a small subset of its recommendations has been funded.
The growing and hidden pay gap between junior and senior teachers — a common problem in Maryland — should be viewed as a disgrace.
Maryland local and state governments are allowed to disclose only individual-level salaries but not benefits. For senior teachers, benefits are often larger than salaries. School districts should have to publicly disclose this information.
A good pay-gap disclosure would be a simple graphical distribution of total salary from the lowest to highest with each decile and the top 1 percent marked off. Better would be a graph showing the distribution of total compensation — the bottom line that union and government negotiators care most about. Given local and state governments’ track record of making misleading and unverifiable pay-gap claims, the raw data and methodology behind governments’ pay claims should be disclosed.
More generally, the loophole-ridden and unenforceable “open government” policies that enable our politicians’ culture of secrecy when making controversial decisions should be condemned.
Until politicians publicly disclose and commit to reducing the junior-senior teacher pay gap, the public should oppose future K-12 teacher pay increases.