The Truth About Teacher Salaries

When Governor Jay Inslee submitted his proposed supplemental state budget last December, he did not include any new funding to help the state comply with the Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary school funding case.  But when he faced the legislature less than a month later to deliver his State of the State address, suddenly education was front and center and the Governor announced he was determined to make teacher pay – specifically, granting teachers a cost of living adjustment (COLA) – a priority this session.

It’s amazing what a court order, mixed with election-year politics and pressure from a state teachers union which put $1 million into Inslee’s gubernatorial campaign, can accomplish.

The Governor has proposed raising seven different taxes to generate roughly $200 million this budget period – and another $400 million during the next budget period – much of which will be used to fund teacher COLAs.  Virtually every Democrat in the legislature is supporting this effort, but it has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate., You can bet this will be a hot button issue during the upcoming legislative campaigns, so let’s look at the facts regarding teacher pay.

Have teacher salaries been frozen the past 5 years?
This is one of the loudest claims of those who want to raise taxes to fund a state-level COLA for teachers, but the reality is that increases in teacher pay depend on the circumstances regarding each individual teacher.

Teachers are paid by the state via a statewide salary schedule based on years of experience and college credits earned.  Pay goes up automatically with the number of years worked and the number of college credits earned.  These annual raises are called step increases.  In addition, most teachers also receive compensation through locally-bargained contracts funded by local levy dollars.

During the recession, the state did suspend state-level funding of COLAs for all teachers, but did not stop funding annual step increases, and teachers unions continued to negotiate supplemental contracts at the local level.

So, the only teachers who have had their pay frozen the last five years are very senior teachers at the top of the salary grid who are no longer eligible for step increases, and who have not received any increase in their local contract.  All other teachers have received step increases, local increases, or both – they have not gone “five years without a raise” as some suggest.

Are Washington’s teachers underpaid?
Again, those who want to raise taxes to increase teacher pay are selective with the facts. When you look at just the statewide salary grid, our teachers do appear to be underpaid.  But when you consider total compensation, they are absolutely not underpaid.

The average teacher in Washington State is paid just over $52,000 annually in state dollars, but the total average salary, including local contracts, is $64,600.  The state salary alone would place Washington’s teacher pay well below the national average, but with local funding our teacher pay ranks among the top 10 states in the union.

The state, via its Quality Education Council, created a workgroup to study the issue of K-12 compensation.  The workgroup reported that teacher salaries, including local funds, “are sufficient to recruit and retain high-quality staff.”

More specifically, the state workgroup contracted with Dr. Lori Taylor, a professor at Texas A&M University who is an expert on school finance issues.  She found the following regarding teacher pay in Washington State:

The salaries most Washington teachers actually receive (i.e., their total final salaries) meet or exceed the salaries received by comparable non-teachers in their communities. On average, teachers in Washington earn 91 percent of the annual salary for the average college graduate, despite working a substantially shorter year. Only 30 school districts, which serve only 4 percent of the school children in Washington, pay total teacher salaries below the average 10-month salary for a typical college graduate.

But isn’t the Supreme Court Ordering the State to Raise Teacher Pay?
No, the constitutional issue in McCleary is the use of local levies to pay for basic education as defined by the state legislature, not overall teacher pay.  In its most recent order, the Supreme Court demanded action, including a legislative plan this session, but the justices did not place the issue of teacher pay ahead of other basic education funding issues, such as transportation or materials and overhead.

What the court is ordering the state to do between now and 2018 is to stop using local levy dollars to pay teachers and fund other components of basic education.  The court is also ordering the state to fund enhancements, such as lower class sizes and all-day Kindergarten, that the legislature has already passed into law.

When it comes to teacher pay, the legislature has not adopted the salary recommendations proposed by the compensation workgroup.  Given the fact that the workgroup admitted that current average teacher pay – including local contracts – is competitive, it seems the court would be satisfied if the state simply replaced the levy funding for salaries with state funding and kept teacher pay roughly where it is.

And that brings us, once again, to the need for property tax reform and some form of the “levy swap.”  Transferring property tax revenue from local school districts to the state is the smarter government solution to much of the McCleary funding mandate.

So, when you hear Gov. Inslee and Democrats talk about teacher pay during this election season, remember:  Washington State pays its teachers well, the legal problem is where the funding is coming from.

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Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Former State Representative, County Councilman, and GOP State Chairman. Now working as a Public Affairs Consultant, Senior Advisor to SPI Randy Dorn, and Political Commentator on KING and KCTS TV and