Why Your Superintendent Doesn’t Want to Give Teachers a Raise

By Daarel Burnette II — January 23, 2019 3 min read
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Governors in recent years have been pouring money into school districts budgets, yet teachers’ pay has, for the most part, not budged. Driven in part by salary issues, teachers in Los Angeles went on strike, and teachers in Denver decided Wednesday to go on strike. Other states’ teaching forces are also contemplating walkouts, protests, and strikes. So what’s up?

It’s good to remember that school spending in most states still hasn’t reached pre-recession levels, and districts, as I wrote about in this week’s issue of Education Week, have competing priorities that can gobble up new state money before it lands in teachers’ pockets.

Here are a few things district superintendents, CFOs, and school board members have told Education Week they think about when considering whether or not they should give their teachers a raise.

The Dangers of Using One-Time Money: When governors brag about more money for schools, district superintendents look to see if that money is going to be recurring or if it’s just a one-time thing. Often times, governors will take money from a state’s reserves or use surplus money in order to boost K-12 spending, something that looks politically savvy but, district superintendents have said, is not really a sustainable way to pay for schools. If district superintendents decide to give teachers a raise with states’ surplus money or money from states’ savings, it’s very likely that the following year they’d have to pull from the district’s own savings account or go to local taxpayers to ask for more money, a politically difficult feat. Districts have said this is an easy way to drive a district into debt.

Backfilling Positions: During the recession, tens of thousands of school district employees were laid off across the nation. This led to the shuttering of extracurricular and after-school programing, and the hollowing out of school staff, including secretaries, nurses, and school psychologists. Principals have long complained that this has made things more difficult in areas like collecting and interpreting data, improving teaching, and taking care of kids’ mental and physical health. Now that districts’ budgets are growing again, some superintendents are eager to bring those positions back, rather than give their existing teaching staffs a raise.

Reducing Class Sizes: Also during the recession, districts had to lay off scores of teachers or, worse, institute years-long hiring freezes. This led to the ballooning of average class sizes—in some places, like California, Georgia, and Nevada classes are so large that they’re in violation of state code. But getting back into compliance with state law, or even reducing average class sizes by just a handful of students, can require the hiring of dozens, sometimes hundreds of teachers.

Pensions: Across the nation, states’ pension obligations for public employees are accelerating, spurred on by investment losses during the Great Recession, a wave of Baby Boomer retirements, and years of fiscal mismanagement. That has huge implications for K-12 spending. Teachers’ pension debt today tops out nationally at more than $516 billion, and states such as Connecticut, Illinois, and Michigan project they won’t have enough money within the next decade to pay teachers what they’re owed at retirement. Hefty increases to school spending in some states end up being used to pay down grossly underfunded pension obligations, putting pressure on the money available for instructional spending, staff salaries, and other needs.

Other District Initiatives: All the while, districts are being asked by their states’ education departments, politicians and, most crucially, parents, to improve schools. Superintendents have responded with a host of new inititives, including purchasing laptops for students, hiring teacher coaches, adding hours onto the school day and providing teachers more professional development—all of which costs money. Replacing a district’s curriculum, for example, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and building a new data-collection system can cost upwards of $1 million.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.