Anne Arundel County’s leading politicians want to raise taxes to pay for more K12 public school spending — a thank you to the teachers’ union that was instrumental in getting them elected. The vote is expected Friday.
The union’s president has been arguing that you “get what you pay for,” so if you want good schools, you’ve got to pay for them, which sounds reasonable enough. But what isn’t reasonable is these politicians systematically hiding from the public what teachers are paid, especially senior teachers.
From academic surveys, we know that 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 much is the current pay gap between them? Amazingly, in the current smoke and mirrors debate, these questions haven’t been asked.
Consider that presidential candidates often lament that women earn 23 percent less than men — without even controlling for occupation. In comparison, Anne Arundel County’s pay gap between junior (starting) and senior teachers is much greater. 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 thirty years of experience).
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 both why half of starting teachers leave the system within five years and why senior teachers 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 not only be a fruitless battle but one that would risk personal retribution.
Between 2008 and 2017, I regularly listened to the candidates running for the school board and then compared their stated priorities with their actual priorities after taking office. The differences were striking, including their teacher pay priorities. 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 both retirement health 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 current tax debate has thus been driven by senior teachers who assert that they have been cheated out of step increases that they were promised years ago.
Last January, Maryland’s Kirwan Commission report called for $3.8 billion of increased education spending in Maryland, including a bevy of compensation increases for various classes of senior teachers. But so far, only a small fraction 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. Ask your county executive and county councilor: How large is the pay gap? Will you commit to publicly disclosing the raw pay data and your methodology behind your pay statistics? What, if anything, will you do to reduce the pay gap? An excellent pay-gap disclosure would be a simple graphical distribution of Unit 1 (teacher union) total salary from the lowest to highest with each decile and the top 1 percent marked off.
Also, ask your state representative to justify why Maryland local and state governments are allowed to disclose only individual level salaries (even if only with abundant loopholes) but not benefits. For senior teachers, benefits are often larger than salaries.
Until our politicians publicly disclose and commit to reducing the junior-senior teacher pay gap, the public should oppose their request for a K-12 tax increase.
—J.H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org and editor of the website Maryland’s K12 Public School Compensation Transparency.