Teaching is hard work. No doubt about it. It’s a career chosen for the love of kids and desire to serve society. A noble profession.
And, as everyone knows being a teacher means taking a vow of poverty, living a life of clipping coupons, and occasionally having to dine on cat food. Every budget season brings stories highlighting the plight of the poorly paid teacher, with pleas to spend any bump up in revenue on increased pay.
Not included in those stories? Any actual data showing what the compensation of California teachers really looks like. Instead we see averages of salary schedules, recaps of starting pay rates, and “data” from websites that rely on self-reported numbers.
With the hand-wringing we see around education funding one would think answering the question “how much are California teachers really paid” would be vital to making good decisions. Especially when those who benefit from routing that money away from kids and into their paychecks do that vociferously.
But analysis based on real pay records is never a part of the conversation. “Teachers are underpaid”, and we’re supposed to simply accept that as fact.
Transparent California has almost 25 million records detailing $1.7 trillion in public employee compensation, including over 8 million entries from public school districts. This data is a result of making thousands of Public Records Act requests, and involves data straight from the districts’ own payroll systems.
What better resource to analyze real teacher pay? Let’s do that!
In 2020, with 250,000 records available, we see the median total pay of full-time teachers was $91,067. Median total compensation – including benefits – was $119,422. These are facts, from actual data.
But it’s expensive to live in our state. No matter what they make, wouldn’t a teacher be better off using their degree to work for a private company?
Fortunately we have solid data on that. The California Department of Education provides data on the educational attainment of our teachers. And the US Census Bureau gives us data on median income by education level. Weighted to match the education of teachers, comparably educated private employees make $80,479.
Looking at pay only our teachers make about $10,500 more than they would with the same education in private industry.
But we know teacher retirement plans are very generous, how does that factor in?
Private employers contribute the equivalent of 6.2% of an employee’s pay to Social Security. If they provide a 401K matching contribution the average match is 4.4%. The typical private contribution is 10.6%.
Teachers don’t participate in Social Security and have no 401K. Instead, districts make contributions to the California State Teacher’s Retirement System. This was 17.1% in 2020. That year the state contributed 10.33%, for a total of 27.43%. That’s almost 17% more in retirement contributions than private employees receive.
On a $91,000 income that’s worth $15,000. Every year. Invested in the typical 401K over a career this is likely worth $2 million or more at retirement. Adding pay plus these additional retirement contributions means apples-to-apples total teacher compensation to private is $106,000/year.
Answering the Goldilocks Question (“too much, too little, just right”) is best left to parents. Even knowing the real data some parents may feel teachers are still underpaid; while some may feel pay levels are fair already.
This year our schools are flush with cash. In many districts unions will be holding out their hands for more. Parents need to evaluate those demands knowing what teacher compensation really looks like, and knowing every dollar given is a dollar that can’t be spent on improvements with more direct impact on education.
Is now really the time for “more for adults”, or is it time to focus more on spending that benefits our kids?
Todd Maddison is the Research Director for the public pay watchdog website Transparent California, and a parent activist working to improve K12 education in our state.