Chicago Public School Teachers Highlight Perennial Debate of Teacher Salaries

VIDEO: Failed negotiations with city raise questions about schools across the country.
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Teacher pay is back in the headlines as the Chicago school teachers went on strike Monday.

The average teacher salary is $71,236 in the Chicago Public School district, which includes elementary schools and high schools, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card of Northern Illinois University. The average in the state is $64,978.

Jackson Potter, staff coordinator of the Chicago Teachers Union cautioned that the average salary figures likely include a large number of veteran teachers who retired this year: 1,665 teachers, according to the latest figures from the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund.

While negotiations in the nation's third-largest school district are focusing on a number of issues, including job security and teacher evaluations, the complicated issue of teacher pay will always be a point of discussion across the country, said Chris Swanson, a vice president at Education Week.

"The idea that teachers have much more generous benefits packages than other occupations is complicated to get into," Swanson said.

Education Week's "Quality Counts" report published in January looked at teachers' pay parity, which measured teacher pay against 16 comparable occupations in each state.

The analysis found that public school teachers make 94 cents for every dollar earned by workers in 16 comparable occupations, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey data from 2010.

Teachers in Illinois make about 91.2 cents for every dollar earned in comparable occupations, the report stated, which ranks teacher pay in the lower half of the country, as 32nd from the top.

"It's not dramatically different," Swanson said of the teacher pay in the state.

Washington, D.C. ranked last, because, Swanson said, it has a "robust" labor market in general. In other words, teacher salaries in the nation's capital may appear high, but compared with other salary levels, teacher pay can be relatively low there.

On the other end of the spectrum, 13 states pay teachers at least as much as comparable workers if not more. Wyoming teachers had the highest teacher salary relative to other comparable occupations in the index: 131.4.

The report analyzed salary without looking at benefits, but Swanson said there is variability for non-teachers and teachers that may work nine out of 12 months of the year.

"There are teachers who work more than nine months out of the year or who have additional income through coaching," Swanson said as examples of the wide range of teacher pay.

Lori Taylor, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, pointed out that the dispute in Chicago appears to be "a struggle over reforming a system that is perceived as broken."

One of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's reforms is extending the school schedule, which "is apparently very important to teachers, because they are fighting tooth and nail not to have that lengthened," Taylor said.

"You have to think the reason why people stay in those teacher jobs when the salary is not competitive is either the benefit package is amazing or their desire to help kids," Taylor said. "Either there is a personal psychic benefit, which is the case for a lot of teachers, but never the case for everyone."

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