Recruitment & Retention

5 Reasons School Employees Are Getting Hefty Raises This Year

By Mark Lieberman — February 09, 2022 5 min read
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Many school employees in some of the most vital and least heralded positions have started getting bigger paychecks this year.

Fifty-two percent of district leaders and principals who responded to an EdWeek Research Center survey last fall said they’re raising wages for their employees to help address the staffing shortages that have plagued districts all year. Of those, 22 percent said their district is raising some wages by more than 10 percent, and another 26 percent said their district is raising some wages by 5 percent to 10 percent.

Personnel wages tend to make up the majority of school districts’ operating budgets. It’s relatively unusual for districts to change employee compensation during the school year—but it’s prudent to acknowledge the hard work of keeping education going during the pandemic, many district leaders say.

Earlier this week, I profiled six districts that have raised wages this year. I asked district leaders how they figured out the new salary amounts, how they’re funding the increases, and how they plan to maintain the increases in future years.

From those conversations, I learned that schools are facing a wide range of pressures influencing their changing approach to paying their employees.

Here’s a summary of the reasons why wages are going up this school year.

These jobs are hard, and they’re only getting harder

Jobs that involve working with K-12 students can be grueling. Students misbehave, and sometimes their parents do, too. Basic supplies are hard to come by. Sometimes, employees have to step up to fill gaps. Many classified workers only work part-time in schools and have to find other sources of income.

During the pandemic, those challenges are magnified. Working in school buildings while wearing masks and trying to maintain social distance can be exhausting. Some community members are rejecting public health recommendations, putting students and staff at risk. Widespread staff shortages have led many existing school employees to take on new duties.

Higher wages are perhaps the most direct way to reward school workers for their heroic efforts.

Workers are speaking up and demanding more

Tom Philion, dean of education at Roosevelt University, attributes some of the turmoil in K-12 staffing to the period of remote learning and school building closures nearly everyone in education experienced between March and May of 2020, and some for much longer.

“Being away from school and some of the regularity of the scheduling opened up the possibility of, ‘My life doesn’t have to be organized like this,’” Philion said.

K-12 workers are voicing frustrations over what they see as schools’ inadequate efforts to balance protecting them from COVID-19 and keeping schools open for the benefit of students. School bus drivers in at least 20 districts in 14 states have participated in a strike or sick-out this school year, according to an Education Week analysis.

Substitute teachers in Washington, D.C., nutrition workers and custodians in Long Beach, Calif., paraprofessionals in Pittsburgh, teacher assistants in Durham, N.C., and tutors in Springfield, Mass., have also publicly raised ire over wages in recent weeks.

Competition from other companies and districts is stiff

Districts in recent years have faced increasingly stiff competition from private industry employers. Corporations like Amazon tend to have more capacity to raise wages and offer robust benefits than public schools, which rely on local taxes and state aid for the majority of their funding.

Districts across the country are reporting an uptick in the number of existing employees and job candidates eyeing fast food chains and factories as more lucrative alternatives.

In Oklahoma City, for instance, Hobby Lobby offers a starting salary of $18 an hour, which is more than the school district can offer for positions like substitute teachers, said Brad Herzer, assistant superintendent of human resources, safety, and security for the Oklahoma City school district.

Minimum wage increases and inflation are ramping up

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median hourly wage for a K-12 school bus driver in 2020 was roughly $16.29; for a substitute teacher was $17.59 (or $123.13 for a seven-hour day); and for a teacher assistant was $14.

These K-12 figures obscure widespread variation by state and even by district. In South Carolina, for instance, school bus drivers make anywhere from $10 to $15 per hour, according to a survey of districts conducted by the state department of education.

The living wage in the United States for a family of four was $16.54 per hour in 2019, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator. The tool gauges the typical expenses for an average family and arrives at an hourly wage necessary to sustain members of the household.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, though 30 states mandate a higher minimum, and 11 states plus Washington, D.C. will have a $15 minimum wage by 2026. President Biden has proposed a nationwide $15 minimum wage, but an effort to push that proposal through Congress last year faltered.

As states push the minimum wage higher and inflation leads to surging costs for housing and consumer goods, school employees expect more to keep up with basic expenses.

Federal relief funds offer more opportunities for creative approaches to money.

Some districts are using federal relief funds to pay for salary increases. Others are temporarily paying for regular expenses with federal relief funds, opening up space in their general funds for new expenses, including higher wages. (For more on federal relief funding, check out this explainer I wrote with my colleague Andrew Ujifusa.)

The federal funds offer districts an opportunity to spend on things that were previously out of reach, and to rejigger their budgets in ways that direct more money to students and the staff members who serve them.

But those funds also present a challenge. When they run out, some of the priorities they were helping to fund might expire with them, if districts don’t plan ahead or seek other sources of funding.

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