As most people know, the majority of public school teachers are paid based on salary schedules. Most (but not all) contain a number of “steps” (years of experience) and “lanes” (education levels). Teachers are placed in one lane (based on their degree) and proceed up the steps as they accrue years on the job. Within most districts, these two factors determine the raises that teachers receive.
Salary schedules receive a great deal of attention in our education debates. One argument that has been making the rounds for some time is that we should attract and retain “talent” in the teaching profession by increasing starting salaries and/or the size of raises teachers receive during their first few years (when test-based productivity gains are largest). One common proposal (see here and here) for doing so is reallocating salary from the “top” of salary schedules (the salaries paid to more experienced teachers) down to the “bottom” (novice teachers’ salaries). As a highly simplified example, instead of paying starting teachers $40,000 and teachers with 15 years of experience $80,000, we could pay first-year teachers $50,000 and their experienced counterparts $70,000. This general idea is sometimes called “frontloading,” as it concentrates salary expenditures at the “front” of schedules.
Now, there is a case for changes to salary schedules in many places – bargained and approved by teachers – including, perhaps, some degree of gradual frontloading (though the research in this area is underdeveloped at best). But there is a vocal group of advocates who assume an all-too-casual attitude about these changes. They seem to be operating on the mistaken assumption that salary schedules can be easily overhauled – just like that. We can drastically restructure them or just “move the money around” without problem or risk, if only unions and “bureaucrats” would get out of the way.**
Salary schedules aren’t just one-shot deals. When teachers and districts negotiate salaries, they don’t start with a blank slate. Schedules are, in many respects, evolving systems, which emerge over time as a result of continuous negotiation (and, in bargaining states, approval) by both parties.
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