School Choice & Charters

Catholic School Teachers Tempted By Public School Wages

By Jeff Archer — March 29, 2000 4 min read
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Many educators wouldn’t hesitate to make a career move that promised an immediate $14,000 a year pay increase. But Jennifer Christiansen says the decision was one of the toughest she’s ever made.

Two years ago, she left her job at St. Agnes School—a K-8 Roman Catholic school in Chicago—to teach in a public magnet school in the city. Although she loved her old job—and the idea of helping St. Agnes serve its predominantly Hispanic inner-city neighborhood—Ms. Christiansen says her parochial school income of $21,000 wasn’t nearly enough to help her start a family and buy a house.

“When I went in to tell my principal I was leaving, I lost it—I was in tears,” she said. “Leaving St. Agnes was very hard. If the salary was different, there wouldn’t be any question; I’d still be there.”

Teacher ‘Food Chain’

No one knows exactly how many educators move from Catholic to public schools each year, but what evidence does exist suggests that Ms. Christiansen’s experience is hardly unusual.

When the 26-year-old teacher left, she was one of three St. Agnes teachers who made the switch from private to public education that year. In fact, one public school in the same neighborhood employs 10 former St. Agnes teachers, said Patricia Jones, the Catholic school’s principal.

“I’ve been seeing that here for 18 years,” Ms. Jones said. “The average person can afford to work for us for about four years, until they start getting serious about life and have all the expenses that you then incur. I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that we’re a training ground for the public schools.”

The few studies that have examined teacher turnover in private education appear to bear out Ms. Jones’ view.

A 1995 federal report showing attrition rates for private schools—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—showed that a private school teacher is much more likely to switch to a public school than the other way around.

A more recent study, by Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Georgia sociologist, shows annual teacher turnover to be 18 percent at Catholic schools, compared with 12 percent at public schools. His analysis does not show where the teachers went.

The situation is likely to become even more dire for Catholic and other private schools as public schools seek the estimated 2 million more teachers they will need to hire over the next decade.

In purely financial terms, the incentives are stacked heavily against parochial education. Nationwide, the average beginning salary for a Catholic elementary school teacher with a bachelor’s degree is about $17,700, compared with $25,737 for the public school beginner. The gap widens as teachers get more experience.

Moreover, because many Catholic school systems encourage, or even require, their educators to earn state teaching licenses, there are few bureaucratic barriers to transferring between the two sectors.

“It’s like a food chain, and I’m not sure who’s behind us,” said Nora Murphy, an assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York.

Making Ends Meet

Few Catholic school teachers say they ever expect to earn what they could at a public school. And many say the salary potential they sacrifice by staying in a private school is made up at least partly by intrinsic rewards— greater control over the curriculum, stronger collegiality among staff members, and more consistent support from parents.

“I look at this job as a vocation— not as a career,” said Patty Quinn, a religion teacher at St. Jude Elementary School in Rockville, Md. “I really think that the work that I’m doing has eternal consequences, and that’s worth more than any money they could pay me.”

That’s not to say Ms. Quinn is content with her current salary. With a master’s degree in education, a state license in teaching reading, and 10 years’ experience, she currently makes $30,200 a year. Although she’d love to earn the $49,000 she could get in the local Montgomery County school district, she’d be happy if she could just cover her expenses better.

At her current salary, she’s had to work second jobs at Wal-Mart and at day-care centers to make ends meet. “I love what I do, and I choose to do it,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s just so frustrating to pay your bills and have $50 left over to buy food and gas.”

Many Catholic school leaders have not been deaf to such pleas. When Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, released an exhaustive study of his system’s schools late in 1998, he called the salary issue the “single most troubling item in the report.” (HEADLINE, Jan. 13, 1999.)

The Chicago Archdiocese, which serves the country’s largest enrollment of parochial school students, has since joined a growing list of Catholic systems examining new financing structures aimed at improving salaries.

But the task is a difficult one for cash-strapped parochial schools fearful of raising tuition so high that they price out lower-income parents. Chicago’s Catholic school teachers learned this winter that they would be getting a 6 percent raise. While that’s slightly better than last year’s 5 percent, it still puts the system’s teachers years away from achieving even 75 percent parity with the local public schools.

But, said Elaine M. Schuster, the superintendent of schools for Chicago’s Catholic system: “Hopefully, this gives a signal to our teachers that the archdiocese does want to raise salaries.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Catholic School Teachers Tempted By Public School Wages

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