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Teacher Compensation is More Messed Up Than You Know

With all of the craziness happening in Wisconsin and across the country regarding teacher unions, a lot of people are questioning the equity of wages and benefits for teachers.  I could tell you a bunch of toe curling stories both in favor of unions, and against.  (I’m not certain of my own opinions on the matter, although I am firmly against tenure.)   What I can tell you however, is that teacher compensation is even more messed up than you know. 

In California for example, teachers pay into STRS (State Teacher Retirement System), but not into Social Security.  This means that when they retire, they are eligible for STRS but not Social Security.  “Cry me a river!” you might be thinking. 

But wait! How many of you had jobs in high school or college?  How many California teachers had jobs before they began their teaching careers?  Lots!  All of those years of paying into Social Security are wasted.  If they end up moving at some point, and teaching in a different state, they lose their STRS.  One of my friends worked in the private sector for 14 years, and then became a teacher.  When she retires she will choose between collecting 14 years worth of Social Security, or however many years she teaches worth of STRS.  Either way she gets gypped.  

For me, this means that I paid into STRS for six years, instead of Social Security.  My family moved to a different state for my husband’s job.  Some day I will go back to teaching, and then eventually retire.  I too will have to choose between Social Security or STRS.  Either way it will a bum deal, and make me feel like I contributed to a giant Ponzi scheme.  Luckily, I privately contributed to a 403b while in California, but not enough to retire on.  It’s too bad there wasn’t the option of opting out of STRS completely, and just contributing to my 403b.  Most teachers I knew in California did not even have a 403b, because their pay was so minimal compared to the outrageously expensive cost of living in California at that time.  It was easier for me because I was married to my very excellent and supportive husband.

Another little known fact about teacher pay is the “five year cap” when you move jobs.  This means that whenever a teacher moves into a new district, the highest she can be placed salary wise is at the five year level, no matter how many years she has taught. A teacher might have taught for 20 years in one district and have been absolutely superb, and then have to move for one reason or another.  When she gets a job in a new district, she will only be paid at the five year level.  It doesn’t matter how many years she taught, or how wonderfully she performed, she would only be placed at the five year mark in most districts.

Compensation in every state is different, and every district is different, and so I can only speak to my experience teaching in California. But as you can see, none of these issues are black and white. The entire system seems to be designed to limit mobility, and trap teachers in the same job forever.  I guess that’s the other side of the tenure coin.  You have a job for life, but you wouldn’t be able to switch jobs very easily if you wanted to.