CPS teachers out-earn many in other districts, but union says pay isn’t the whole picture and numbers can be misleading
By Kim Geiger
Oct 11, 2019 at 6:14 AM
In their push for a new contract with reduced class sizes and more support staff, Chicago teachers have twice rejected pay raise proposals from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, keeping the dispute over wages alive in an attempt to force the issue on their other priorities.
While Lightfoot has tried to entice the union into an agreement by arguing that her proposals would make CPS teachers among the highest paid in the country, a Tribune analysis of state and national salary data shows that the district’s teachers already out-earn most of their public school colleagues.
The starting CPS teacher salary of $52,958 is the highest for unit school districts in Illinois. Just five Illinois districts out-pay CPS in starting salary, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, and they are all high school districts in wealthy suburbs: Glenbrook, Maine Township, Evanston, Lyons and New Trier. When adjusted for cost of living, the starting salary at CPS is also higher than those at the country’s other large public school districts in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, according to data compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The midcareer salary for CPS teachers with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree is $82,630, considerably higher than in suburban unit districts such as Aurora-based Indian Prairie, which pays $67,329, and Plainfield District 202, which pays $55,833. Adjusted for cost of living, CPS teachers in this category earn roughly $10,000 more than teachers in New York, almost $20,000 more than teachers in Los Angeles and around $30,000 more than teachers in Miami, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality data.
The earning advantage in Chicago diminishes as the district’s teachers age. The maximum CPS teacher salary of $101,161, which doesn’t include pension contributions, is eclipsed in places like Elmwood Park ($154,353) and at Oak Lawn Community High School ($150,606). Still, CPS tops the charts among large urban districts, slightly edging out New York and Los Angeles when cost of living is factored in.
"Comparing Chicago to other large school districts across the nation, its teacher salaries are better than most,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Not only are its starting salaries quite competitive, salaries increase at a faster rate than happens elsewhere.”
Most CPS teachers also out-earn their fellow workers in Chicago, where median household income is $57,238, according to census data. Under the current contract, a teacher who works the standard 208-day school year, or just shy of 42 weeks, earns $58,315 by year five.
With enrollment of around 360,000, CPS is the third-largest school district in the country. New York has the biggest district, with nearly 1 million students, followed by Los Angeles, which has 630,000 students. Right behind CPS, with 357,000 students, is Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
There are about 19,700 full-time employees of CPS who are identified as teachers in their job title, including regular teachers, bilingual teachers, special education teachers, speech pathologist teachers and citywide teachers. Of that group, the average salary is $78,211 and the average benefit cost is $27,146, according to a Tribune analysis of CPS employee data.
By comparison, in Clark County, Nevada, home to the country’s fifth-largest school district with enrollment of around 325,000, median household income is $57,076. Teachers there earn a starting salary of $41,863 and top out at $93,018. The average teacher salary is $60,000, and the average benefit cost is $26,000, a district spokesman said.
CTU contends that its teachers are paid modestly, especially given the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree.
“I would say $54,000 a year is not a gargantuan salary,” said CTU spokeswoman Chris Geovanis.
CPS teachers are also unique in that they, like all city employees, are required to live in the city, where the cost of living can be more expensive than in the surrounding suburbs. The residency rule, which was designed to keep middle-class public worker salaries in the local economy, does not exist at most other school districts.
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The rule is especially tricky for paraprofessionals like teacher assistants, who earn far less. A Tribune analysis of CPS data found that the district employs about 1,200 teacher assistants who earn average salaries of $34,000 and almost 4,000 special education classroom assistants whose average salary is around $36,000.
Lightfoot’s most recent offer would increase wages for teachers and paraprofessionals by 16% over five years. That means that a second-year teacher’s salary would grow from $53,000 in 2019 to more than $72,000 in 2024, when factoring in the raise and so-called step increases many teachers receive annually, according to CPS. The average teacher salary would grow to nearly $100,000, the district said.
“We believe teachers should be properly compensated for their work and dedication and we’re proud to be a national leader when it comes to teacher compensation,” the district wrote in a letter detailing its latest contract proposal.
The CTU says the district’s figures are misleading because they focus on salary growth that would be realized by the current average teacher rather than the average teacher in five years. The CTU contends that when turnover is factored in, the CPS workforce has maintained an average experience level of around 10 years.
Under Lightfoot’s proposal, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience today would see his or her salary increase to $95,604 by year five of the contract. That amount is $11,000, or 13%, more than the current teacher with 15 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree earns today. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience today would go from a salary of $58,315 to a salary of $81,701 in five years. That’s about $6,500 more than the $75,083 earned today by a similar teacher, or an increase of about 2% each year.
“That doesn’t keep pace with the rate of inflation,” Geovanis said.
“And it’s not just about money,” she added, “because there are other significant sticking points at the table on which CPS has absolutely refused to budge,” like prep time for elementary school teachers and caps on class sizes.
The union wants a 15% salary increase over three years, which would increase teacher salaries quicker than the Lightfoot proposal.
The union also argues that teachers in the six largest unionized school districts in the country have seen higher wage raises since 2010 than have CPS teachers.
Research shows that higher teacher salaries are associated with better quality education because schools are able to attract teachers who might otherwise have gone into other professions, said Kirabo Jackson, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.
“The mechanism that’s at play is when you have higher salaries, you’re able to attract people who would be effective in the classroom from other professions, when the teacher pay is high relative to other professions,” Jackson said. “People who were hired during a recession year, when other salaries were low relative to what teaching is, they perform better.”
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