Pay Inequity: What to Do?


In the first of this three-part series (see, we took a look at the significant pay differences between Chicagoland suburban teachers in elementary school districts (K-8) and their counterparts in high school districts (9-12).  We found that there were no glaring differences between the work teachers at the two levels do that would explain the 15-25% more high school teachers earn, despite having the same experience and education.  In Part II (see, we discussed some possible reasons that gap has evolved—from militancy and size of teacher unions to primary-income earners being more likely to teach high school, many theories can be advanced.  Regardless of the reasons, however, if like me you believe that this pay difference is inherently unfair, the final piece to this puzzle would be to figure out a way to make teacher pay more even.

The most obvious answer already exists in places like Naperville, Bolingbrook, and Chicago:  Unit districts.  Unit districts encompass both elementary and high schools in the same group.  In other words, the teachers at Naperville Central High School have the same salary schedule as the teachers working in Kingsley Elementary or Jefferson Junior High School, all part of Unit District #203.  Without a doubt, this is a fairer arrangement for teachers and taxpayers alike.  Only one teacher contract has to be negotiated, a single superintendent and school board preside over all the community’s schools, supplies can be ordered in bulk at a discount, health insurance policies can be negotiated based on large numbers of employees to be covered, bus companies are anxious to provide competitive rates due to the significant number of routes to be run, and educational policies are uniform throughout a student’s thirteen years in public schools.  So let’s see how the teacher salaries of unit districts compare to those of the districts we used in our first example.

High School Districts Starting Salary, BA Degree 10 Years’ Experience,  Master’s Degree 20 Years’ Experience, Master’s + 30/60 hours
Hinsdale Township #861 $52,913 $87,171 $127,535
Glenbard  #872 50,568 82,426 121,363
DuPage #883 (Willowbrook, Addison Trail) 50,446 76,022 118,044
Downers Grove #994 $50,456 $76,087 $109,292
Elementary School Districts Starting Salary, BA Degree 10 Years’ Experience,  Master’s Degree 20 Years’ Experience, Master’s + 30/60 hours
Gower #621 $45,852 $69,236 $91,474
Hinsdale #1811 49,746 80,588 110,435
Eisenhower #611, 4 42,697 58,840 79,225
Community Consolidated #892 45,703 67,865 98,648
Villa Park #453 40,469 64,751 95,102
Downers Grove #584 43,640 76,370 105,172
Center Cass #664 42,742 61,549 84,202
Unit School Districts Starting Salary, BA Degree 10 Years’ Experience,  Master’s Degree 20 Years’ Experience, Master’s + 30/60 hours
Naperville #203 $45,541 $69,282 $103,401
Elmhurst #205 47,119 71,316 106,550
Wheaton-Warrenville #200 41,784 64,404 102,182
Average for High School $51,096 $80,427 $119,059
Average for Elementary 44,407 (-15.1% HS) 68,457 (-17.5% HS) 94,894 (-25.5% HS)
Average for Unit 44,814 (-14% HS) (+0.9% Elem) 68,334 (-17.7% HS)(-0.2% Elem) 104,044 (-14.4% HS)(+9.6% Elem)

1-4 Matches high school districts with elementary school districts in the same communities

High school districts still provide significantly higher teacher salaries than unit districts.  Unit district salaries, based on the small sample used for this article, have essentially the same salaries as elementary districts, except for the most experienced and highly educated teachers.  It’s no wonder that high school districts in the area have regularly poached quality, experienced teachers from unit district high schools.  High school districts in the Chicago suburbs have the best pay in Illinois, no question.

Now, if you believe as I do that teaching is a valuable skill which should be rewarded equally, regardless of where you do it or how old your students are, then these statistics should give you pause.  And this isn’t really a political issue as some will try to make it.  Either high school teachers should be paid lower salaries commensurate with elementary and unit district teachers, or elementary and unit district teachers should have their salaries increased in order to earn as much as high school teachers.  You can—and I know some will—turn this into an indictment of unions and greedy high school teachers, but the truth is that there is an inequity here that needs to be addressed.  How it should be addressed is where the issues will begin.

So let me ignite those issues by stating that no teachers should be required to earn less because others don’t make as much as they do.  Therefore, I believe that unit and elementary teachers in DuPage (as well as suburban Cook, Lake, Kane, Will, and McHenry) deserve salaries equal to their high school counterparts.

Yes, that will mean more money will have to be spent on education.  Yes, this flies in the face of current trends with teacher unions in retreat, accepting very small salary increases as politicians rage about accountability, tenure, and test scores.  Yes, suburban high school teachers make a decent living and can count on a middle-class lifestyle as well as a good pension (if they were hired before 2011).  Yes, I was one of those privileged high school teachers, so my bias is apparent and there for anyone to question.

So let’s have at it.  First, what value do we place on education?  It is regularly listed as one of (if not the top) issues for Americans.  We fret over test scores and how we compare to other countries in the world.  We alternately love and hate the studies and programs that focus on education—A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and The Common Core are the ones which have driven education policy over the last thirty years.  There is now a concerted effort to do away with teacher tenure, as it is seen as protecting scores of horrible teachers.  In general, we have targeted teachers and the unions to which they belong as the chief problem with our schools.

Yet, everyone recognizes the power and importance of a good teacher.  When you look at who will influence your children, after family (with parents being number one by a wide margin) and peers, I would argue that teachers will have the most impact on how kids turn out.  How you measure that impact could actually bump teachers to number two on that list, but any survey which would show that result could only be accomplished with all members of the survey group being at least thirty years old.  Teachers—in a way that is similar to parents—don’t get their due until their students are ex-students, sometimes ex-students for many years.

Now, we really don’t have much control over parents and peer groups.  They are pretty much learn-as-you-go professions, and we regularly fret over how little power we have over either group.  From families on reality series to those horrible adolescents in your daughter’s junior high school, we often wish we could have better examples for our kids.

But when it comes to teachers, we as a society do have much to say about who is in front of our children every day.  And you can say all you want about tenure, unions, and the challenges of ridding schools of poor teaching; but the single biggest factor in the excellence of our teaching corps is the quality of those who choose to go into the profession.  We should analyze each and every element of why people select teaching long before we’re dissecting test scores to determine if Teacher X knows what she’s doing after ten years of teaching.  How we recruit and train teachers should be well ahead of such reactionary, post-results methodology.  So what will encourage the best people to go into teaching?

Obviously I set that up to force you to acknowledge that salary is and will always be one of the prime considerations anyone will study before selecting a career path.  And the statistics show why the odds that the best people will choose education are steep, to say the least.  The Census Bureau puts out a chart showing how career earnings for various college degrees compare (see  As of 2011, someone with a four-year degree would average $2.4 million over the course of a forty-year career.  Education majors, by comparison, will earn $500,000 less ($12,500 less per year) at $1.9 million.  That $2.4 million is just the average; degree majors in school subjects like science ($2.5 million), computers ($3.2 million), or math ($3.2 million) pay even more.

I understand that money is only one aspect of a career selection, but it is typically right there near the top of most twenty-two-year-old college graduates’ lists.  If we want to get top students into teaching, we’d better make sure that teacher salaries can compete with other careers.  Suburban high schools are about the only places in this area where salaries are even close to that reality right now.  So, there’s another reason why we should make elementary and unit teachers’ salaries more competitive.

Finally, I’ll ask you to look at this from one other point of view.  When it comes to our national spending priorities, America speaks about the importance of education, but spends on its military.  We always take a look at these two areas in isolation from one another, but as I heard countless times during my days as a contract negotiator for my teachers’ unions, “There are only so many slices of the financial pie.”  Resources will always be limited, so a dollar spent in one area will mean less can be spent in others.

Nobody disputes that the US is number one when it comes to military might and our expenditures reflect that.  We spend more on defense than the next eight top spenders combined.  Even more revealing is how our percentage of gross national product (GDP) compares to other countries.  Using a chart created in 2012 (see, you will see that the US comes in at number 23 out of 171 with 4.06% of GDP spent on defense.  That might not seem so bad until you look at countries that are spending a higher GDP percentage than America—Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and China are the kinds of countries that outspend us in GDP.  When it comes to the more developed countries, none of them come close to our GDP except Israel (for obvious reasons) and Greece (I have no clue why that is.)  Look at Finland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, France, Iceland, Canada, Australia, and just about any other of the more modern economies; and you will see they are spending a much lower percentage of their GDP on the military than we are.

Now, take a look at GDP when it comes to education, and you will see those numbers essentially flip.  Developed economies are spending a much larger percentage of their GDP on education than they are on defense.  Finland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, France, Iceland, Canada, and Australia spend more on education than the US as a percentage of their GDP.  The most recent figures I could find (see from 2010 show this.  And many of those countries do better than the US does when it comes to educating their children.

That does lead to a political issue:  What should our priorities be?  I would argue we can cut our military spending significantly while still providing for an adequate defense.  Yeah, that would mean cutting back on our interventions throughout the world, using diplomacy and sanctions more than drone strikes, and helping our allies to shoulder a fairer share of the world’s policing responsibilities.  Should we then plow those billions in savings into education?  Certainly some of it, but we also have infrastructure issues, not to mention nutrition/health problems that need more attention.  Not surprisingly, the programs that address those problems often provide significant overlap—getting poor children a nutritious breakfast every day will improve their performance in school.  Pre-school programs can lessen the likelihood that kids wind up in gangs, lowering the prison population and the damage to neighborhoods that necessitates more police and repair.  My belief is that we get a much greater “bang for our bucks” when we invest in our country rather than building fighter jets or tanks the military doesn’t even want just so politicians can protect factory owners in their districts.  I’m not knocking our service people, but there is a great deal of waste in the armed services, and everybody’s known that for a very long time.

Yes, we’ve wandered well away from the issue of suburban high school district teachers earning more than elementary and unit district teachers.  But when we start talking about priorities and spending, we do have to look in every direction to figure out what provides the greatest good for the greatest number.  My bias is that teachers are one of the best places we can spend our tax dollars, and we should do all we can in trying to attract the best to lead our classrooms.  We should therefore begin the process of increasing elementary and unit district teaching salaries until they are equal to what high school district teachers are earning.  Future generations will thank us for our efforts.

For more on the complexities of school funding, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at


One comment

  1. Pingback: Referendums Should Be for Teachers, Too |

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