Facing reductions in state support, Michigan
school districts must make difficult decisions concerning their budgets. Many
districts are looking to limit raises for teachers or freeze their salaries
altogether. But salary freezes for teachers are sometimes not salary freezes at
all — which is one good reason to reconsider teacher compensation.
In a recent column in The Detroit News, Iris
Salters, president of the Michigan Education Association, claimed that school
employees already have sacrificed enough through the years, praising them for
"saving" taxpayers almost $1 billion through salary freezes and benefit
reductions. If this were true, total state expenditures on teacher salaries
would be decreasing. They aren't. Although there were 600 fewer teachers on the
payroll, Michigan spent more on teacher salaries in 2008 than it did in 2004,
according the state's Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Paying more to fewer employees may seem surprising in this economic climate,
but it's perfectly understandable once you consider the formula used to
The rigid single salary schedule is one of the most inefficient ways to compensate teachers.
Nearly all collective bargaining agreements
contain a "single salary schedule" for teacher compensation. This schedule
builds in "steps" for automatic pay raises for all teachers based on their
years of experience and earned graduate degrees or academic credits.
Essentially, this means that teachers would receive a pay increase for every
year they remain employed by the district, regardless of their students'
performance, the district's financial situation, or the conditions of the
According to data from American Federation of
Teachers, the average annual step increase nationally is 3.16 percent. Although
every salary schedule differs, studying a handful of Michigan teacher contracts
shows that their average salary step increases are right in line with the
national trend. But teachers can boost their earnings at an even higher rate if
they complete a certain number of post-graduate academic credit hours or earn a
graduate degree. In those cases, teachers can receive as much as a 10 percent
boost to their salary in a single year.
If a district gives its teachers a raise, the
entire single salary schedule increases by that percentage in addition to the
scheduled steps. The AFT reports the national average across-the-board raise
from 1997-2007 was 2.87 percent. Most teacher contracts have this automatic
raise built right into the contract. In a majority of cases, a salary freeze
eliminates this across-the-board increase, but teachers, unless they've "topped
out" on the schedule, still receive an automatic raise via steps in the single
salary schedule. Unlike most employees, when many teachers experience a salary
freeze, their individual take home pay still increases, just not by as much as
what they might have anticipated.
Examples of this pseudo salary freeze are
plentiful. New teacher contracts recently signed in Mt. Pleasant, Quincy, and
Leslie reduced or froze the across-the-board salary increase while maintaining
the automatic step increases. Many news reports of teacher contract agreements
focus on the across-the-board changes, but fail to recognize the pay raises
built in to the salary steps.
In the end, teachers typically receive raises for
merely logging another year in the classroom, while Michigan's educational
expenses continue to expand. Few private-sector employees can say the same.
This is not to say that teachers should not
receive pay increases. But the rigid single salary schedule is one of the most
inefficient ways to compensate teachers. It fails to create incentives for
teachers to improve student achievement or the overall performance of their
school. A performance-based pay system would be a much more appropriate way of
compensating teachers, and sophisticated models exist that adequately account
for differing learning capabilities and environments. Some districts in
Michigan are starting to consider this commonsense reform.
As the economy continues to slide and school
districts try to balance their budgets, the overall cost of public education
continues to rise, and the percentage of this budget eaten up by employee
salaries and benefits rises right along with it. As long as schools use a
single salary schedule to compensate teachers, this is not likely to change.
Michigan schools must seriously consider changing the way its teachers are
compensated if they want to address today's economic realities.
Michael Van Beek is director of
education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to
reprint is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly