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

Appreciate teachers? Show them the money!

I am with the teachers here in Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona that are calling for higher pay and more funding for public education. This is my thirtieth year in education. So much has changed in public education over the past three decades, yet the calls for professional pay for teachers remain much as they were in 1988.  I spent my first day on the job in Redwood City, California at an organized walkout over teacher pay.

At the time, the Sequoia Union High School teachers were asking for more professional development support and wages more in line with other Bay Area professionals so that they might be able to afford a house.  There were teacher shortages for bilingual, math, and science teachers as well as huge teacher turnover in schools serving mostly low-income students. Sound familiar?

The salary schedule in the Sequoia Union High School District looks almost exactly the same today as it did in 1988 except the salaries in the steps and lanes were far less.  You can see it here. If I had stayed as a high school science teacher, I would preparing to retire with a peak salary of $118,810.  Sounds great from a Denver perspective until you take a look at the housing costs in the Bay Area. Redwood City is 142% more expensive than Denver.  Given Denver’s lower cost of living, Denver’s highest teacher salary (around $80,000 with bonus) is about the same as the Redwood City salary. The problem is that neither salary allows you to qualify for a home mortgage for the community that you are serving.

Let me say that again, the highest teacher salary in Denver Public Schools does not enable you to qualify for a typical home loan in Denver.  It’s amazing to me that teachers have waited this long to strike. While increased funding does not directly translate into increased achievement, it is necessary to recruit and retain effective classroom teachers. I do not know how we can expect to have a world class education system if our teachers cannot afford to live in their own communities.

How much do other professionals make in Denver according to

Profession Average Annual Pay
Lawyer $114,000
Teacher $45,149
Architect $71,455
Electrician $55,903
Family Physician $170,000
Bus Driver $33,067
Construction worker $50,026
Software Engineer $93,378
Nurse $65,088


Are teachers less important than architects, nurses, lawyers, or software engineers?

And yes I know that teachers do have comparatively good pensions (and that is another blog) but the pensions don’t pay the bills for the first thirty years of a career. It’s a bit like having a rich uncle that you know has written you into the will. Nice to have assuming you stay in the will but doesn’t help with a mortgage or other near term expenses.  It is also worth noting that there remains a healthy debate about how much time teachers work compared to other professions. A popular belief/myth is that teachers work the length of their contract with long school vacations and summers off.  Those of us that have taught know that this is very rarely true, given all of the preparation time that most effective teachers put into the job. Teacher work time looks very different than most other professionals, Sunday is often a workday with grading and preparation for the week.

And if you look at OECD teacher pay data across other industrialized nations, US teacher pay does not look comparatively good. As an example, we would have to raise high school teacher salaries something like 28% to be in line with Finland’s high school teachers.

So how can we pay teachers more and ensure the best, brightest and most effective teach?  

While there are some policies that need to be changed, the primary challenge is political.  How can you convince Colorado voters that we need to raise more funds to pay teachers more? And how should teacher pay be structured?

The good news is that Colorado has a strong tax base with a thriving economy.  While the real challenge are the politics, here are a few ideas on what policies need to be changed.

  1. Repeal the worst parts of TABOR (Colorado Tax Payers Bill of Rights) so that Colorado can collect the taxes needed to fund our roads, schools and higher education when the economy and state is growing.  
  2. Pass an additional graduated income tax much like this proposal that would have a relatively small impact on most tax payers and raise an additional $1.6 Billion in revenue for public education. 
  3. Provide an added income incentive to districts that are willing to give some or all of their teachers more of a “professional pay scale” that is tied less to experience and more to performance.   Maybe something similar to what was recently proposed by A+ Colorado for the Denver teachers. This sort of professional pay would have more differentiated pay and allow some teachers to make over $100,000. I would ideally like to get rid of the traditional “step and lane” pay structure for most teachers that is more in line with a factory worker than a professional but I recognize that this will require leadership from teachers to change.

There are many other policy ideas on how to pay effective teachers more and raise revenues but the nut will be who can lead a coalition across the current political divides to pay teachers the salaries they deserve. Here’s hoping our next Governor will step up for our children’s future.