Where the Teacher Salary Mess Started
….or at least some of it. An article in the Seattle Times pointed out that the Lake Washington, Bellevue, and Issaquah districts are now finding it nearly impossible for teachers to afford housing in the district where they teach. The origins of this problem go back almost 40 years.
Some caveats: teachers are not the only professionals to have this problem. In addition, nobody forces anyone to sign a teaching contract, and anyone going into education does not have any logical expectation that the wages will equal careers with similar responsibilities. People teach because they want to. In many a case, it is almost because they have to because of their inner being.
The Times did not deal with the question of whether or not it is in fact a good idea for teachers to live near their school. When I was in college I clearly remember a professor advising us to never purchase beer or alcohol in the local town where we worked. I thought that was extreme, but he had examples to back up his assertion. When I was teaching, many colleagues did not want their students to know where they lived, fearing vandalism or visitors or I don’t know what. I thought that was also ridiculous. For my entire career I lived within two miles of where I taught. Most of my students knew where I lived, and I saw them frequently in stores and at local events. I never had a problem, and there were real advantages. I wanted to be a part of the community, and of course the short commute was an asset, including frequent trips to school for evening events or on the weekends.
Overall, most would agree that there are clear advantages to having the teaching staff be in the community and a part of everything that is going on.
What has happened? To grab the handiest example, when we purchased our home in 1977 the top teaching salary was just over 20k a year. That salary has grown by a factor of four in the intervening years, but our house has gone up in value by a factor of… twelve. If I started teaching today there would be little hope of living in a plus 500k home, ever.
The history is usually ignored, but in this case it is crucial. Back in 1977 teachers were granted the legal right to bargain for a “master” contract that covered all of the teaching staff. Within a time shorter than the legislature envisioned, teachers got to be very good at this, and in the next few years the salaries ramped up. This was pretty much confined to the districts on the west side of the state, which tended to be larger and had more aggressive teacher associations.
The legislature reacted to teachers winning this game by …changing the rules. A state wide salary schedule was introduced, and districts on the east side of the state were over-funded for a few years to bring their salaries to parity with those in the west. Virtually all of the strikes that had taken place, other than one area of Spokane and in Winthrop, were on the west side, so in effect teachers to the east gained all of the benefits of those who went on strike without any of the effort. And unless you have lived it, you have no idea of the effort and pain and stress involved.
Back then the cost of living in the Seattle urban area was much higher than on the east side of the state. We used to visit my wife’s grandmother in the little town of Sprague. I went for a walk on my first visit and loitered around the local middle school on a summer day when school was not in session. I thought the school was being remodeled, because there were only 13 to 15 desks in each room. No – that was the norm. I wondered what it would be like to have a class of 15, since most of mine were twice that size. On my stroll I also noticed the prices asked for homes that were for sale, and realized we could sell our house, move to Sprague, cut my class size in half, retain the same salary, and purchase four or five houses to replace ours!
For all of these reasons strike activity has been mostly non-existent in eastern Washington schools for over thirty years. Now the cost of living in Spokane is catching up, and you can see that in the one-day protest Spokane teachers will be conducting soon.
But surely the legislature was aware of the cost disparity at the time they did this? Of course they were. In the unlikely event they were not they certainly received a plethora of messages on the topic.
The statewide salary schedule had nothing to do with logic, reducing cost, or fairness. It was a simple and effective response to the assertive teachers on the west side. They were summarily punished for their temerity in reading and understanding the law and the bargaining process.
And they have been punished ever since, the legislature smug in the belief that a state-wide massive strike would never happen. And it hasn’t.
Copyright 2015 David Preston