“While many teachers have very altruistic aspirations, they still have to pay their mortgage,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It’s a labor market, and it’s a well-established principle that people are going to gravitate to the higher-paying jobs.”
Ohio’s property tax-based school funding system was ruled unconstitutional four times from 1997 to 2002. That system has been tweaked repeatedly, but property taxes remain a crucial revenue stream. That means districts with less property wealth and fewer levies usually have less to invest in personnel costs, which make up the lion’s share of school budgets.
“The question is how do you fix it?” asked Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee. “I don’t know that you can tell wealthy suburbs that they can’t raise additional money to pay the best teachers they can get.
“At the same time, I’m not sure you could increase the burden (on the state) to subsidize the lower-income districts more than we already are.”
Salaries for most public school teachers in Ohio are based solely on their education level and years of experience. Each school district and its teachers union negotiates a contract that includes a salary schedule that lists pay for each spot on the scale.
But those schedules vary dramatically from district to district.
For the 45 local districts studied for this report — large and small, urban and rural — the median starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was $36,422. That’s the point at which half are higher and half are lower. The spread from the lowest (Jefferson Twp., $30,583) to the highest (Oakwood, $45,000) is almost $15,000, in part because Oakwood has a unique merit pay system rather than a salary schedule that guarantees raises.
That spread keeps growing as teachers’ careers progress. For a 10th-year teacher with a master’s degree, the local median is $57,000, but the spread from lowest salary (Jefferson Twp.) to highest (Miami Valley CTC) is more than $25,000 per year. At the top of the scale, the gap reaches $38,000, as Centerville’s maximum is $95,035.
“The higher salary, the more retention you’re probably going to have,” said Brian Cayot, a Centerville High School geometry teacher and union president. “We don’t get a whole lot of shift out of Centerville, with people going to other districts.”
Pay equal quality?
Several educators and others agreed that higher pay is tied to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. But the data does not show a straight correlation between higher pay and higher performance on state tests.
The districts with the highest starting salaries include high-performing Oakwood and Lakota, but also struggling Hamilton.
Dayton, which ranked last in the state on performance index, is above average in starting salary. And the list of districts that pay veteran, well-educated teachers the most does include high-ranked districts such as Centerville, Kettering, Beavercreek and Springboro, but also Mad River and Northridge.
Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said he believes building stability in the district’s teaching staff will be a key to improving the district’s performance.
“Having one of the top starting salaries within our region certainly helps when you are competing with other districts to recruit and retain the best of the best,” he said.
Lehner agreed that many highly qualified teachers would stay in districts that could pay them the most, but she was less sure of the connection to academic performance.
“It’s difficult to look at cause and effect, because those districts that can afford to pay more generally tend to be districts with higher economic status, and more college-educated parents,” Lehner said. “And we know that has a direct correlation to performance.
“Is it the families that are in that school (that make the difference), or is it that the teachers are paid more?”
Cayot was more blunt.
“You look at Centerville and Dayton. If you switch those teaching staffs, there’s probably not going to be that big of a change in their kids’ scores,” the Centerville teacher said. “A lot of it has to do with the kids’ backgrounds.”
The Dayton case
While Dayton Public Schools’ starting teacher salary is slightly above average for the region, teachers who stay in the district eventually see others pass them by, including teachers at much smaller districts.
Of the 45 districts studied, Dayton ranked 14th in starting salary, but around 30th after 10 years, and 39th for veteran teachers at the very top of the scale.
Judith Spurlock, Dayton Public Schools’ director of human resources, said there are multiple reasons why Dayton sees high teacher turnover, including people seeking a better teaching atmosphere. But she acknowledged that pay is a factor, especially as new teachers come out of college needing to pay off student loans.
Melodie Larsen has taught in DPS for 29 years and said teacher retention has been a major issue for the past eight.
“More money would be good, but the reality is that even when the levy passed, the district couldn’t collect as much in taxes because of foreclosures, so they’re in a tough situation,” Larsen said. “We have a lot of turnover with young, new teachers. They come in, work for a couple of years, then they’re on to the suburban schools.”
Schools such as Dayton struggle to recruit teachers given the comparatively low pay paired with high levels of student poverty, low test scores and inconsistent family support. But Larsen said she wouldn’t teach anywhere else.
“I’m here because this is where I’m needed,” Larsen said. “I feel like I’m called to work with the children I work with. I don’t ever see them as challenges. I don’t see that we have that many more issues with the students, depending on how you approach them.”
Larsen admits she didn’t always feel that way. She was upbeat Wednesday as she helped E.J. Brown fifth-graders with computerized math work. Several of the students clearly adored her. But Larsen was scared back when she had to start in Dayton rather than the suburban district she targeted.
“When I got the call from the head of HR that I was hired, I burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t teach in Dayton. There’s no way I can handle the kids,’ ” Larsen said. “Even 29 years ago, the district was in the paper a lot. But by the second year, I thought, ‘I can’t teach anywhere else.’
“The students need us. As long as you’re respectful to them, they’re really good — they’ll blow up and yell at you about, oh, you pick on me — but five minutes later they’re back.”
Lehner said she hopes a sense of mission can be restored in the teaching industry, with more people choosing to spend years in low-income schools to help the neediest students. But she acknowledged “reality steps in” if pay stays low.
She also said improvements are needed in teacher preparation — from more diverse student teaching experiences to better training on behavior management techniques. The University of Dayton has an Urban Teacher Academy that addresses those issues, but many schools don’t.
“We need to be putting better teachers into our inner cities,” Lehner said.
Dayton offers small incentives to new teachers who live in the city. Walsh said financial incentives to get teachers to work in challenged schools generally don’t work. She pointed to Charlotte, N.C., where very few teachers accepted a $20,000 bonus to teach in the city’s worst schools, although several signed up when a smaller bonus was paired with the promise of a new principal and the chance to work alongside other high-performing teachers.
Cayot said some teachers are focused on the pay side, but many others would be just as happy with smaller classes, improved technology and better support. Northmont treasurer Ann Bernardo, who worked 14 years in Huber Heights, agreed.
“Some may decide that even with higher pay, it is not worth the risk of working in a certain environment,” she said. “… Some teachers accept the challenges that come with working in struggling districts because they believe in public education.”
Merit pay rare
Oakwood is the lone local district that has moved to a merit pay system. Treasurer Kevin Philo said there’s no longer a ceiling on what a teacher can make, but there’s also no guarantee of raises, since they are largely tied to an evaluation process.
Superintendent Kyle Ramey said Oakwood hasn’t noticed a change in the number or quality of applications in the three years under the new system.
“We wanted to get away from the traditional automatic raises,” Philo said. “We also tried to focus on what occurred inside the classroom. A lot of places would have a point system with more points for professional development or coaching or being an advisor of a club. We wanted to focus on what happens inside the classroom.”
Walsh is a major advocate of merit pay, but Lehner said Ohio is very unlikely to tie salaries to evaluations anytime soon. That leaves the salary schedules in place for the foreseeable future, and some districts struggling to recruit at a wage deficit.
“I think what would really help in getting and retaining new teachers is if they stopped comparing the districts based on the test scores of students on a single day,” Larsen said. “Make some allowances for those of us who choose to teach in a more difficult district, instead of making it harder for us at every opportunity.”