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American politicians universally endorse the principle of equal pay for equal work. But they’re hypocritical in applying it. Just look at the different approaches to gender vs. seniority inequity. During the last two presidential elections, a major campaign theme was outrage that women earn only 77 percent of men’s earnings — a figure President Obama used to select Equal Pay Day’s annual date.
Contrast that benchmark with the inequity between junior and senior teachers. Including only the salary scale, junior teachers commonly earn less than 50 percent as much as senior teachers with the same job description. Including other forms of compensation, most notably retirement benefits, that percentage can drop below 5 percent.
Consider my school district in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. For two teachers with identical job descriptions, a teacher at the bottom rung of the salary scale earns only 41 percent as much as one at the top. Critics counter that years of teaching experience and academic course credits are correlated with better teaching. But some academic studies indicate minimal payoff from post-tenure teaching experience and additional academic course credits. Even after five years of teaching, the junior teacher only earns 54 percent as much.
In addition to the worst pay, junior teachers often get the worst work conditions. They are assigned disproportionately to the least desirable schools, classes and students; and they have the least job security, including senior teachers’ right to bump junior teachers from their teaching position for reasons unrelated to job performance.
Current benefits, notably healthcare, are even more unequally distributed. Since healthcare costs are pooled over all teachers and then divided equally, junior teachers heavily subsidize both senior and retired teachers. Even with the transfers from the young to old under the Affordable Care Act, a 64-year old can pay three times as much as a 21-year old for the same coverage.
But deferred benefits, primarily retirement benefits, are by far the most unequally distributed. Teachers who start at age 25 will take decades just to break even on their pension contributions. For the fraction who come out ahead, pension wealth can spike by more than $1 million the year they become fully vested. Using accrual accounting principles, that means a starting teacher with a salary of $42,420 may earn less than 5 percent of a senior teacher’s peak earnings.
Other dramatic spikes in pension and healthcare retirement benefits come at 10, 15, and 20 years of seniority. The Urban Institute now rates teacher retirement plans in the 50 states with an “F” for rewarding younger teachers and “A” for rewarding senior teachers.
Senior teachers counter with the plausible-sounding theory that junior teachers will eventually earn as much as senior teachers and that an incentive to stick around fosters a more experienced, competent work force. But some academic studies show that unfairly penalizing junior teachers has the opposite effect.
In any case, this rationalization for pay discrimination is becoming increasingly irrelevant. After the Great Recession, more than 40 states created multiple compensation tiers so that newly hired teachers would permanently earn a smaller pension benefit regardless of their eventual seniority. My school district has even extended tiered discrimination to the salary scale, with step increases for junior teachers waived to fund increases for senior teachers.
Pay discrimination against junior teachers cannot be rationalized as good education policy. It is ultimately based on the political power of the senior teachers who dominate teacher unions and have minimal incentive to represent starting teachers and those who haven’t yet been hired. Alas, what’s good for senior teachers is not necessarily good for all other teachers.
Unfortunately, the perverse economic and political incentives that preserve this system of discrimination are not only entrenched but growing stronger. Economically, senior teachers benefit when poor pay and working conditions lead to high turnover among junior teachers, as higher junior teacher turnover increases the pool of workers contributing to senior teachers’ benefits. Politically, senior teachers benefit when junior teachers’ low salaries can be marketed to voters to build political support for more education funding, which they then disproportionately pocket. As the gap between junior and senior teachers grows larger, it also grows harder to close without disproportionate harm to senior teachers.
Democratic reforms should seek to change these perverse incentives. A first step should be to provide accurate and publicly accessible information about the pay discrimination.
With the federal government annually spending more than $50 billion to fund local schools, Congress should task the Labor Department (experts on equity) and Treasury Department (experts on government budget data collection) with jointly collecting and disclosing such information.
Too much education reform effort has been wasted on implementing performance pay for teachers.
More effort should be focused on reducing non-performance pay, starting with obscene gaps in pay between junior and senior teachers performing the same work.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, frequently writes about education data policy and politics. For more information, see K12Transparency.info.