News

State's teacher pay still not making the grade

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

It comes as no surprise to leaders of the state teacher’s union that educators in Washington are still being paid less than their counterparts nationwide.

A recent report by the National Education Association ranked Washington 19th in the nation for teacher pay, claiming that salaries fall more than $1,000 below the national average and continue to lag behind California, Oregon, Nevada and Alaska.

With the cost-of-living in Washington on the rise, union officials argue that the disparity in pay goes further than the $1,000 annual gap the study reports. The study simply ranks states by average salaries, without taking into account the area’s cost-of-living.

“The cost of living in Washington is higher than in many states, particularly for the majority of teachers who live and work in the Puget Sound region,” said Rich Wood, spokesman at the Federal Way headquarters of the 76,000-member state teacher’s union, the Washington Education Association.

The majority of public school teachers in Washington are paid according to the state’s salary allocation tables. Using a sliding scale for education level and years of experience, teachers this school year are paid between $28,300 (undergraduate degree and no experience) and $56,588 (graduate degree and 16 or more years of experience).

The average public school teacher’s salary in Washington during the 2001-02 school year was $43,474, or approximately the pay of a teacher with a master’s degree and 11 years of experience.

By contrast, the average salary in Washington in 2000 for all occupations was $30,810. Social service and healthcare professionals with advanced degrees averaged between $40,000 and $65,000 in the same period.

Low pay is a relatively new problem for Washington teachers. Twenty years ago, Washington ranked fifth in the nation for teacher’s salaries.

The rapid decline has led to what union leaders and teachers term unlivable wages for the state’s educators.

Despite the passing of Initiative 732 in 2000, which guaranteed annual cost-of-living salary increases for teachers, salaries are still lagging behind inflation. Pointing to a 21.7 percent rise in pay from 1992 to 2002, compared to a 32.9 increase in inflation in the same period, teachers claim they simply are not being compensated fairly.

The NEA’s report confirms what union leaders say they already knew: the state’s public school employees need more competitive pay and benefits.

The plight of the teachers is a priority for legislators. But, with the state facing a budget deficit in excess of $2.5 billion, legislators say that everything is on the table -- including Initiative 732.

In January, two years after it passed, I-732 can be overturned with a simple majority vote of the Legislature.

Also at issue is Initiative 728. Aimed at reducing class sizes, I-728 was among the most supported initiatives in state history, garnering nearly 73 percent voter approval in 2000.

“We believe legislators must honor the will of the voters,” said Wood. “Those initiatives have helped improved the quality of Washington's public schools by funding smaller class sizes and better teacher pay.”

Washington’s teacher-to-student ratio was ranked fourth worst in the nation in the NEA report. Per-pupil spending also made a poor showing, coming in 23rd out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Faced with too many students and too little pay for their members, the union hopes legislators will back off on raising education standards until class sizes and salary increases can be appropriately addressed.

“If we are serious about meeting our state's new higher academic standards, our state's leaders must be realistic about the need for continued investment in public education,” said Wood.

For the approximately 1,300 teachers in Federal Way Public Schools, there is little to do but wait. Teachers and district representatives will head to the bargaining table this spring to begin negotiations on a three-year contract.

At the same time, union representatives plan to lobby the Legislature to preserve voter-approved initiatives and increase teacher pay and benefits.

What happens in Olympia could have a profound impact on local negotiations. With extra pay for mandatory instruction days and overtime hours up for grabs on the local level, teachers and district officials alike will be watching the Legislature closely.

Legislators and school districts “must keep the commitment. Our schools have made great progress, but continued success requires continued investment,” said Wood. “We need a stable and equitable plan for funding public schools.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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