In the debate over fixing public schools, one thing everyone agrees on is that teachers make a difference. More good teachers are needed if children are to make educational progress.
But like other workers in our society, teachers, particularly teachers with needed skills and experience, tend to go where the money is.
Currently, that place is not Philadelphia. And judging from the lack of investment in teacher compensation in the School District's proposed budget and five-year financial plan, that will not change any time soon.
Philadelphia sits near the bottom of the southeastern Pennsylvania region on teacher pay, based on the compensation data in The Philadelphia Inquirer's annual Report Card on the Schools.
The Inquirer reported a starting salary of $39,914 for Philadelphia, with $79,240 being the top of the scale, and only 11 percent of Philadelphia teachers earned more than $75,000 a year. These numbers lag far below suburban districts like the Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, where teachers start at $47,408 and top out at $98,375, with 44 percent making over $75,000 a year.
With the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) contract due to expire this summer, early indications are that this could get even worse.
The 2008-09 School District draft budget contains no money for an annual increase for teachers, who received a 3 percent salary increase in April 2008.
District officials have declined to discuss their bargaining stance.
In its recently released five-year financial plan, the District notes that due to financial constraints, it "sets aside no specific dollars for future across-the-board wage increases." Wage increases could be funded out of savings found through benefit package restructuring, the plan says.
Urging "wage moderation," the plan notes that in times of fiscal austerity, "multiyear wage freezes concurrent with healthcare cost containment" were instituted by the city in 1992 and the state in 2003 for their workers.
The budget document raises several possibilities for boosting teacher pay other than across-the-board increases: adding another "step" for experience and education level, enacting a performance-based incentive, or awarding a one-time bonus rather than a recurring percentage salary hike.
The financial plan also recommends benefit restructuring, calling for discussion of potential cost-cutting measures. They include making employees pay a greater share of premiums, larger co-pays, and bigger deductibles.
The plan provides comparisons to other public employee benefit plans to justify these measures, but does not examine the still-generous benefit plans in higher-paying suburban school districts.
The city-suburban gap in teacher compensation is a symptom of Pennsylvania's larger school funding problems. The state ranks ninth highest nationally in teacher pay, according to a survey released this March. But since school districts in Pennsylvania rely heavily on local property taxes for revenue, more affluent communities generally pay teachers much more than poor rural and urban areas.
New Jersey has had a more generous formula for funding poor urban districts. As a result, new teachers in Camden fare better financially than their counterparts in Philadelphia, starting at more than $45,000.
While the compensation outlook for Philadelphia teachers is particularly grim, low teacher pay is a national problem that is becoming more acute.
A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the teaching profession has an average national starting salary of $30,377. College graduates entering fields requiring similar training and responsibility earn much more: computer programmers, accountants, and registered nurses all start out at well over $40,000 annually.
Lagging teacher pay is not a recent development but is part of a longer trend. Salaries for teachers over the last decade, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute, have risen less than 1 percent, while wages for other college graduates have grown 12 percent.
Not surprisingly, low pay is a major factor in the problems school districts have in retaining teachers. Nearly half of teachers leave the profession during the first five years.
A survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that 37 percent of teachers who plan to leave the profession cite low salaries as the reason. Teachers in hard-to-fill math and science positions, in particular, find they can make much more in private industry. In urban school districts where low salaries co-exist with difficult working conditions, the retention problem is even greater.
The problem is severe enough that recruiting, retaining, and paying highly qualified teachers to work in underserved areas is one of the few education issues that has made the radar screen in the presidential race.
Hillary Clinton has called for increasing base pay and incentives for teaching in high-needs schools, while Barack Obama says he wants to talk with teachers about finding ways to reward exemplary performance and willingness to teach in tough schools. John McCain favors merit pay as a way to entice good teachers to urban schools and enhance parental choice, which he says will improve urban schools.
Philadelphia is an example of the challenges of building up the teacher corps. Without additional money to put into the pot, none of the ideas for paying teachers more will make any difference.