The stakes are higher than ever for state education chiefs under the Every Student Succeeds Act—but whether they’re being compensated any better is a much murkier picture, an Education Week salary review shows.
State schools superintendents today lead often-emaciated departments tasked with lengthy federal and state to-do lists. They’re also directly in charge of designing and implementing state accountability systems and improving their states’ worst-performing schools under the new federal K-12 law that kicks into high gear this school year.
Despite that, state chiefs are paid, on average, $174,000—about $60,000 less than the average pay for the superintendent leading their state’s largest district, according to an Education Week analysis of the most recently made available data.
There are some big outliers along the way. Mississippi, for example, which has the nation’s 46th lowest per-pupil spending rates, pays its state chief, Carey Wright, $300,000—the highest salary of any state superintendent.
And Arizona, which has the country’s 49th lowest per-pupil spending, pays its state chief Diane Douglas $85,000, the lowest state salary in the nation.
State Superintendent Salaries: How Much Do They Make?
But of the 19 superintendents who were hired after ESSA was passed in 2015, only four received a bump in pay compared to their predecessors. And about half the nation’s chiefs were paid either the same or less than those they replaced, even as they took on the new responsibilities and pressures associated with ESSA.
That all comes on the heels of an already tough recruiting climate for state chiefs, who last on the job for barely two years on average.
“You’re basically telling [state chiefs] to do what you’ve been doing really well, but there’s going to be more headaches, more challenges, you’re going to have less authority because you can’t really tell people in the district what to do—and, by the way, I’m going to pay you less, too,” said Patrick Murphy, the director of research and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who has researched the evolving role and capacity of state education departments.
Several state chiefs interviewed were blunt when asked if they think they’re fairly compensated.
“I took on a lot more responsibilities to be state chief, and the pay doesn’t reflect that,” said Indiana Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who was elected to her post last year. She makes $97,000—a $20,000 pay cut from what she earned as superintendent of the 2,500-student Yorktown, Ind., school district. “The pay, I think, is impacting the quality of people who may be interested in doing this job.”
Those who have pushed for more efficient government spending say the state should push every dollar necessary toward the classroom rather than a bureaucrat at the state capital.
Education Week, relying on a series of open records requests, examined the salaries of all 51 education chiefs and their predecessors and compared them to the salaries of the largest-district superintendents in those states. Ten state superintendents have contracts, which sometimes include hefty incentive bonuses in addition to their salaries. Most of the other appointed state chiefs are at-will employees.
The picture that emerges is one of widely varied salaries due to a confluence of reasons.
For one thing, state chiefs’ salaries tend to be strongly tethered to statutes that set salary limits for state employees. Those laws, in many instances, haven’t been updated in years, despite the state chiefs’ rapidly evolving role.
In other instances, state chiefs are hired by board members but their salaries are set by the legislature.
State agency heads typically aren’t paid as much as their corporate counterparts—or sometimes their underlings, said Jeffrey Neal, the senior vice president at the government consulting firm ICF who has studied public employee salary trends. And he stressed that setting salaries can be highly contentious.
“The political process doesn’t lend itself to nuance,” Neal said. “It lends itself to bumper stickers and sound bites. Trying to get into a sound bite why someone makes $300,000 ain’t easy.”
Mississippi’s salary inflated rapidly in 1999 when the state passed a bill requiring that the K-12 commissioner’s salary be 90 percent of what the state’s higher-paid commissioner of higher education makes. That law was tossed in 2011, but the state’s board, which now sets the salary, hasn’t significantly reduced the state chief’s salary. (Wright’s predecessor made $307,000.)
“Mississippi has the lowest per capita income in the nation,” said Jameson Taylor, the vice president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a think tank that pushes for less state government health care and Medicare spending. “Carey Wright is making ten times more than the average Mississippian. Are we seeing 10 times more value?”
At the other end, the Arizona chief’s salary is set by the state’s constitution and the legislature would have to place a proposal on the ballot to increase it.
“No politician wants to walk those hot coals where they go to the voters and ask for a raise,” said Kevin McCarthy, the president of the Arizona Tax Research Association.
Since ESSA’s passage in 2015, devolving significant policy leeway to the states from the federal government, state chiefs have found themselves with expanded responsibilities.
Starting this fall, for example, state chiefs will be in charge of rolling out new accountability systems, overseeing the collection of more data on student outcomes and reporting that data to the public in report cards they will soon be tasked with redesigning. This is on top of their duties in managing billions of federal and state dollars and leading departments with hundreds of employees.
“State chiefs are no longer just the arbiters of the system,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “They’re no longer just calling balls and strikes. They’re now playing in the game.”
Kristen Amundson, the CEO and president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, amplifies on that point.
“Most folks don’t look at the state chiefs as the CEO of a huge conglomerate organization, which is exactly what it is, but they’re rarely compensated at that level,” she said.
That’s created a schism between district superintendent salaries, typically set by local school board members, and state superintendent salaries. All but nine of the nation’s chiefs are paid on average a quarter less than the largest district superintendent in their state, the typical recruitment pool of state chief candidates.
State Superintendents: What’s in Their Hiring Deals?
The superintendent of Greenville County schools in South Carolina, for example, is paid $249,000. That’s $157,000 more than state Superintendent Molly Spearman, who is paid $92,000 a year.
A string of state chiefs have quit in recent years to take jobs as district superintendents. And, as the pool of applicants willing to apply for state chiefs’ jobs shrinks, the state’s student population doesn’t seem to make much of a difference the job’s compensation.
Pennsylvania’s chief, Pedro Rivera, who oversees a public school system serving more than 1.7 million students, makes $155,000, compared to neighboring Delaware chief Susan Bunting who oversees a system of 134,000 students and makes $163,000.
In California, Tom Torlakson, the state chief, makes just $165,000 in a state with the most public school students in the nation—6.2 million. That’s just half of what the Los Angeles Unified School District’s superintendent makes—and only $40,000 more than what Los Angeles’ full-time school board members will now make after a controversial decision by a city commission to more than double their salary.
What does seems to matter is whether a state chief is elected or appointed by a board or governor.
Elected state chiefs are paid on average about $115,000, while those appointed by governors are paid $158,000 and those appointed by boards are paid $222,000.
State chiefs typically make around the same salaries as other agency heads in their states.
Yet the pay situation remains unpredictable. Indiana’s governor this year signed into law a measure making the state chief a position appointed by the governor rather than elected as of 2021. Under the new law, the governor can set the salary.
The pool of those willing to serve as state superintendents has significantly shrunk and many state boards and governors have in recent years resorted to hiring superintendents from other states, industries, or, as in West Virginia’s case, brought former chiefs out of retirement.
Hawaii earlier this year hired Christina Kishimoto, who was a district superintendent in Gilbert, Ariz.
In order to lure her 3,000 miles away, the state is paying her $240,000 to oversee the state’s single, unified school district, which has 182,000 students. That’s $40,000 more than former Hawaii chief Kathryn Matayoshi and $90,000 more than Matayoshi’s predecessor made.
But Hawaii, for the most part, is an exception. About half the nation’s chiefs were paid either the same or less than their predecessors.
Upping the Ante?
In Ohio, state school board members and legislative leaders in early 2016 toyed with the idea of paying their recently hired state chief $1 million a year—comparable to how much some of the state’s college football coaches make.
“How are we going to pull serious people for a serious job?” board member C. Todd Jones said at a meeting in which a consultant estimated how much competing state chiefs were making. “We need to stop quibbling. Quit whining about this being a lot of money.”
In the end, the board hired Paolo DeMaria, a longtime state bureaucrat, at $180,000, which is $12,000 less than his predecessor made.
DeMaria asked to be paid at a rate similar to other state agency heads and was given a shot at earning a $20,000 incentive bonus for improving the operation of the department of education. Next month, the board is expected to give DeMaria a 2 percent increase and that $20,000 incentive bonus for “success relative to leadership, communication and policy making.”
Meanwhile, the responsibilities of state chiefs keep piling up.
This past season, several states’ legislatures, in quick succession, strengthened the powers of their departments to carry out a slew of initiatives this fall.
As part of passing a new K-12 funding formula, Washington state’s legislature ramped up the duties of its state superintendent to crack down on districts that were overspending and under performing.
The superintendent of public instruction makes $134,000, an amount that state chief Chris Reykdal called “a disincentive.” He will receive a 2 percent cost of living adjustment this year.
“It’s been quite a long time since a local superintendent of reputable high quality has put their hat in the ring for statewide superintendent,” he said.
Data specialist/staff writer Francisco Vara-Orta and librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as State Chiefs’ Pay Squeezed Between Duties, Politics