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Editorial: Learning and earning

We live in an era in which more and more people demand to get what they pay for. Consumers read online reviews before buying a new car, a lawn mower or an ice cream cone. They share recommendations online and when a product or service doesn’t satisfy them, they vote with their feet and their wallets.

That consumer mentality also applies to education. The charter school movement has expanded in recent years because families want more choices and demand better educational outcomes for their children. But public school parents aren’t getting what they’re paying for.

A recent story in The Buffalo News, based on a study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, pointed out that the median salary for teachers in Erie and Niagara counties was more than $73,000 last year. In Niagara Falls, the median pay was above $93,000, highest among the 38 school districts in Buffalo Niagara.

No one wants teachers to be underpaid, but when their compensation reaches a premium level, the students’ families have the right to expect premium results. All too often, educational outcomes in this state don’t meet that standard.

New York State is an outlier when it comes to teacher pay. Teachers have gone on strike for pay raises in the past couple of years in Denver, Colo., Oakland, Calif., and in Oklahoma and West Virginia, among other places. In many regions of the country, teachers take second jobs just to keep up economically. It’s disadvantageous to all.

The Rockefeller Institute study found teachers in New York had the highest median income of any state: $79,588. To put that in more perspective, the nonprofit EdBuild in 2018 did a study on teacher compensation that took into account the cost of living in each state. With that adjustment made, New York’s salary ranking dropped from first to 17th.

Still, teachers in the highest-paying districts, such as Niagara Falls, West Seneca, Lackawanna and Sweet Home, are doing pretty well, all with median salaries above $84,000.

Local educators are especially well-paid compared to the holders of comparable college degrees from other fields.

Across all 81 school districts classified as part of Western New York, the median teacher salary was $64,689, nearly $20,000 more than the $45,092 median pay for all holders of bachelor’s degrees in the region, and some $9,400 more than the $55,281 median pay for holders of graduate degrees. That may be fair, given the stakes, but the results have to follow.

Teaching is an extremely challenging job. If teachers couldn’t make a decent living, we’d end up with fewer people wanting to teach and the ensuing risk of delivering poorer education.

Many factors contribute to educational outcomes, starting with family support in a child’s home. Attendance at school is a better predictor of educational attainment than are test scores. And school administrators, those who design the curricula, and boards of education all play a role.

Teacher compensation among school districts varies widely and for a variety of reasons. Niagara Falls, for example, includes a significant bump in pay after 17 years on the job, which helps with retention. More than 70 percent of the district’s approximately 550 teachers have reached that stage.

Keeping teachers from leaving the field is why their pay escalates as they gain seniority. Districts that are top-heavy with veteran teachers will tend to have higher median pay. That’s a condition that should correct itself with time, as the so-called gray tsunami of retiring baby boomers catches up to teaching.

Younger teachers entering the field will bring down the median salaries in most districts, but as more and more teachers start drawing their retirement benefits, the legacy costs will put a strain on school budgets.

That’s all the more reason for those involved in collective bargaining for new teacher contracts to keep compensation within reason so that school districts don’t have to subtract educational services that benefit students in order to afford rich teacher paychecks.

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