These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

An (Un)Fair Share

We recently released a report on teacher pay in Denver.  After much deliberation we settled on the title “A Fair Share.” But after working on this report, I’m not convinced that teachers are really receiving just that—a fair share.

Denver Public Schools has an operating budget of about $1 billion. Approximately one third of this is spent on teachers’ take-home pay through base salaries, stipends, and incentives (i.e. what teachers see in their pre-tax paycheck rather than total compensation, which includes benefits and pension contributions). You can see how that shakes out here:


It’s difficult to know how this ratio of dollars spent on teacher salaries to overall operating budget compares to other school districts as current financial transparency requirements do not report salary expenditures at this “granular” a level. And we have yet to see whether recent legislation, set to be fully implemented by next summer, will provide this information or not. There is shockingly little publicly available information on the amount and proportion of dollars districts spend on take-home teacher pay, and this is a significant gap in the national research.

All that said, I argue that regardless of how this compares to other geographies or districts, we’re simply not spending enough on teacher’s salaries to truly attract and retain a high quality teacher workforce.

Denver Teachers Can’t Afford Denver

The average salary of a first year teacher in DPS is just under $44,000. And yet average monthly rent of a one bedroom in Denver is $1,380. Rent and utilities are considered to be affordable if they do not exceed 30 percent of a household’s income, which would mean that affordable rent based on the average salary above is anything less than $1,200.

The average salary for a tenth year teacher in DPS: $60,431. Ten years into his or her career, a teacher might consider starting a family or buying a house. But anyone who has looked at the local real estate market knows home prices have skyrocketed. According to the Housing Opportunity Index, just over half of all homes for sale in the Denver metro area are affordable based on the median family income ($81,000 in the metro area). Buying a home is simply out of reach for teachers in Denver.

Prioritizing Teachers

The conversation about teacher pay is more than just about market forces and local economic growth. It is also about how the district (and the sector more broadly) compensates and rewards teachers for their impact on student learning. For example, what good is legislation SB-191, which focused so many efforts on understanding and improving the effectiveness of teachers, if teachers don’t see excellent teaching rewarded financially?

If we’re serious about professionalizing and valuing teaching, we have to put resources behind it. Why is the salary range for an assessment specialist in the central office (a role that, according to the job description, requires a minimum of five years of teaching) 13-35% above the average salary for a fifth year teacher?  Yes, the position is for 235 work days annually, as compared to 184 work days annually required of a teacher (26% more work days). But that argument falls short for me:  

For one, we are penalizing our educators for the institutionalization of summer vacation. If we think of these as annual salaries (i.e. how most people experience income), then we can clearly see the system places a higher value on one type of role over another…and guess who is losing out.

Secondly, though there is the common perception that teachers have opportunities to earn income during their time off during the summer, even teachers who do take advantage of opportunities to work provided by the district, are paid at a lower rate than they earn during the school year.  

Case in point: a first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree has a starting salary of $39,850 and earns an effective hourly rate of $27.07/hour (based on a 184 day contract year). And yet, when teachers attend district-mandated professional development during the summer, they receive $23.46/hour. While there are opportunities to earn higher hourly rates through curriculum development assignments and summer school, those rates ($36.10/hour) are still less than the hourly earnings of veteran teachers. For example, the average hourly rate of a tenth year teacher is $41.05/hour. With practices like this, it is increasingly clear to me that the district is not allocating sufficient resources to our classroom teachers.

ProComp Does Not Go Far Enough

Just over a decade ago Denver started to address the amount of resources available for teacher compensation; voters approved the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, a $25 million annual property tax increase that promised to make major changes to how Denver Public School teachers are paid. For all of the conversations about ProComp, the trust itself makes up a relatively small portion of dollars allocated to teacher pay. Eight percent to be exact.

Which is why, when working on this publication on teacher pay, A+ made the explicit decision to think about the whole pot of money spent on teacher pay. If we’re serious about making a pay system work for teachers, we need to talk about all the money—not just the icing on the cake.

While building our A+ Teacher Pay Model we explored how to create a potential for teachers to make over $100,000. We think that having this earnings potential could drastically change recruitment and retention of teachers, appropriately align our resources to folks who are making the biggest impact on our students, and communicate where we assign value in our education system. Teachers in D.C. Public Schools see an earning potential of $130,000, just to give one example.

Unfortunately given resources allocated to teacher pay in Denver, we found that having a salary scale that enabled teachers to earn six figures either left far too many teachers at an unsustainable wage, or required far more dollars in the system than are currently available. In case you are wondering, D.C. Public Schools does have significantly higher per pupil revenue than Denver– $30,000 v. $12,000.  

Similarly, we found substantially increasing the starting salary to better attract talent into the profession is not within the current budget if we want to continue to reward teachers throughout their careers. You can test out our assumptions here.   

I’m tired of the conversation being constrained by the current budget.  I think it’s time we talk about what a fair share of the district’s operating budget looks like. We find that even a 5-10% increase in resources allocated to teacher pay can make a big difference, and we need to find a way to free up these resources. It’s time we, as a sector, figure out how to put our money where our mouth is.