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Study Finds Teacher 'Wage Gaps' Widening to Record High

The pay gap for the nation's teachers and other comparably educated workers is "wider than ever," a study released last week by the Economic Policy Institute concludes.

Teachers' weekly wages dipped 17 percent in 2015 when compared to wages for similar working counterparts. By contrast, with the same measure, in 1994 the wage gap for teachers was 1.8 percent, the EPI study found.

Hardest hit in the pay disparity were veteran teachers, according to the researchers who considered benefits as well as earnings in their calculations.

"Some of the increase in the teacher wage penalty may be attributed to a trade-off between wages and benefits. Even so, teachers’ compensation (wages plus benefits) was 11.1 percent lower than that of comparable workers in 2015," wrote the researchers — Lawrence Mishel, president of the EPI, and Sylvia A. Allegretto, a labor economist who is chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

They used two data sets from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics — the current population survey and the employer costs for employee compensation — to determine the salary gap. The losses tracked with the economic health of the nation, the researchers found.

Such a teacher pay gap "was fairly stable from 1979 to the mid-1990s" they said, but fell off from then until the early 2000s. By the mid-2000s, it got worse, and then continued a slide from 2010 to 2015, with female teachers suffering the most, they found.

"It is noteworthy that the wage penalty lessened in the early portion of the Great Recession as private-sector wages fared worse than those in the public sector," the researchers wrote in their paper. "This trend was more than reversed in the recovery beyond 2011 as state and local austerity sapped teacher wage growth while private-sector wage growth accelerated."

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, said one thing to consider when reading such a salary study is the depth of benefits that teachers can receive. He acknowledges that the researchers looked at benefits in this study but thinks that there are factors that make such plans a bigger impact on overall earnings.

"Teachers typically get defined benefit plans. What that means is when they retire it guarantees what they are going to earn and that is a significant advantage over private sector employees. That is something that is not really taken into account here," Butcher told AMI.

"When you have a defined benefit plan and you are given a set amount of money that is being invested, you are given significantly more than a colleague in the private sector," he said. "What studies like this can account for are differences in salaries, but not the growth of savings over time and the guaranteed growth of investment that most teachers get."

The study also looked at wage disparities by gender and also by age, with older teachers faring the worst.

In 1979, female teacher out-earned comparable female college grads by 4.2 percent. By the mid-90s, their salaries were comparable. But by the millennium, female teachers had fallen behind, earning 5.7 percent less. Eight years later, that figure had increased to 9.7 percent less. Post recession and into this decade, it got worse and hit 13.9 percent by 2015.

Male teachers fared much worse and have since 1979 when their wage gap was 22.1 percent. It did improve somewhat from 1990 to 1996, the researchers found but then bottomed out in the late 90s. It now stands at 24.5 percent, owing partly to the fact that teacher remains a female-dominated (3/4ths) profession, the study said.

"Given this strong growth in the teacher wage penalty among women, and the large but mostly stable penalty among men, it is not surprising that the overall teacher wage penalty also reached a historic high in 2015: 17.0 percent," the researchers wrote. "The overall teacher wage penalty was modest in the mid-1990s, at roughly 4 percent, but grew to 10.2 percent in 2000 and grew further to 13.8 percent in 2008 before edging up to its historically high level in 2015."

At least one female teacher said that educators who continue to compare their salaries with those outside of teaching are probably soon to leave.

"Most teachers I know gave up a long time ago in trying to be competitive with non-teacher professions," said Ruth Baxter, a Texas eighth grade language arts and history teacher who starts her 24th year in the classroom next week.

"We all know that we're worth a lot more than we're paid. We love what we do, and we just want to make enough money to support our families," Baxter said. "If someone goes into education and then spends their time longing for a more luxurious lifestyle, they usually exit the profession in rather short order."

Butcher, the Goldwater policy analyst, said he hopes more districts will consider rewarding top teachers with higher pay for exceptional student progress, an idea he acknowledges does not track with policies of teacher unions, which negotiate contracts.

"I would love to see teachers in the country paid significantly more but it's got to be based on results," Butcher said. "Teachers unions are steering this conversation in a different way. They have a whole different approach."

The study found that non-union teacher wage gaps were worse than other teachers. In 2015, those non-union teachers earned 25.5 percent less.