Did the Seattle teachers’ strike provide an opportunity to consider compensation and inequality?

Now that Seattle teachers are headed back to work, we’d like to call attention to a provocative op-ed in the Seattle Times by Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University scholar with a Ph. D. in education from the University of Washington. Roza argues that the current compensation structure works against students and young teachers. Consider,

In Seattle, more experienced, better-educated teachers flock to the wealthier schools and take a disproportionate share of the district’s state and local monies with them. The result? The district spends a greater chunk of its base salary dollars on schools with the lowest needs. That’s an equity problem.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rightshas asked superintendents to address these inequities in districts where they persist. But in Seattle, the only options on the negotiating table simply exacerbate the problem. The two sides are battling over the magnitude of an across-the-board percentage cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase. At first blush, these percentage raises may seem to be the fairest way to divvy up new salary dollars.  Every teacher gets the same percentage raise.  But the system fails to spread dollarsevenly. In other words, these fixed-percentage increases will further widen the spending gap between schools with more experienced teachers and schools with less experienced teachers.

Compensation remains a critical consideration as lawmakers struggle to reach full compliance with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate. As Roza contends, the way compensation is structured has consequences. She notes that other districts are rethinking their approach to pay. And she concludes,

Seattle leaders could look beyond their own boundaries and be more thoughtful about how to deliver teacher raises.

To be clear, Seattle teachers deserve a raise and higher pay. But as both the district and the teachers’ union profess a desire for greater equity for students, it’s time to acknowledge how the pay raise options on the table simply make the equity problem worse.

We’re in no position to endorse her prescription, but she raises an important issue. It’s a conversation worth having. Although the problem may be less ripe here than in other states, The Wall Street Journal points to another challenge facing young teachers across the country: the high cost of pension benefits for retired and retiring educators