Sunday, December 11, 2011

One More Thing Brill Got Wrong

On pages 35 and 36 of Class Warfare, Steven Brill analyzes teacher salary increases in New York City that resulted from Albert Shanker’s leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).  His numbers look like this:
Table 1 New York City teacher stating salaries 1953-2007
 $    2,600
 $    5,300
 $  10,950
 $  45,530

From this, Brill concludes, “By 2007….the starting salary would be $45,530.00, or more than eight times 1962’s $5300.”  Evidently Brill wants to spark outrage that teacher unionism would lead to outrageous increases in starting salaries.  In taking this cheap shot, he missed a far more interesting story.  To uncover that story, we need to be able to compare salaries apples for apples.  To do this I used a CPI Inflation Calculator.  Adjusting for inflation, the numbers look like this:
Table 2 New York City teacher starting salaries in 2007 dollars
2007 dollars
 $    2,600.00
 $      20,190.61
 $    5,300.00
 $      36,387.83
 $  10,950.00
 $      61,863.62
 $  45,530.00
 $      45,530.00

This is an interesting story.  The first UFT contract in 1962 resulted in a starting salary 80% higher than Albert Shanker’s starting salary in 1953.  By 1969, the starting salary increased an additional 70%, representing increases averaging 12% each year.  But between 1969 and 2007 starting salaries actually declined 26% in real dollar terms.
At the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Conference last summer, Arne Duncan gave a speech in which he said:
Last year, McKinsey did a study comparing the U.S. to other countries and recommending—among other things—that we change the economics of the profession, pointing out that entry-level salary in the high 30's and an average ceiling in the high 60's will never attract and retain the top talent. We must think radically differently.  We should also be asking how the teaching profession might change if salaries started at $60,000 and rose to $150,000. 
The UFT had achieved those starting salaries in 1969.  I think the question of why a starting salary that would genuinely attract talent to the profession declined 26% over the next 38 years is a fascinating question, one worth pondering.  Rather than offer any glib speculations, I prefer to continue the story….
Starting salaries only tell part of the story when analyzing a single salary schedule.  I articulated my views on the single salary elsewhere on this blog.  Let’s turn to the top level salary and the ratios between top level and starting salaries for a fuller picture.
Table 3 Top level NYC salaries in 2008 dollars
Top level (T)
% Increase
Starting (S)
Ratio (T:S)
From 1962 to 1969 top level salaries increased 43%.  Because starting salaries rose 70% in the same time period, the ratio fell from 1.86 to 1.55.  In the ensuing 39 years top level salaries were virtually flat, but because starting salaries fell 26% the ratio increased radically to 2.2.
As a negotiator I was trained that an indexed salary schedule with a 2:1 ratio is ideal.  I do not think that a 2:1 ratio is a good thing if it means that starting salaries are cut.  Why? Because a dollar you receive today, especially in the current political environment is worth a lot more than an IOU.
The ratio that Arne Duncan proposed in his speech is 2.5.  What this means is that the UFT achieved what the Secretary of Education is recommending for a starting salary way back in 1969, and they approached his recommended ratio in the 21st century, but because this was achieved through reductions in starting salaries, they did not achieve these things at the same time.  I know this involves an anachronism, but bear with me.
If you’ve managed to follow me to this point, I congratulate you.  I’ve seized on a very minute piece of Brill’s story, but I’ve been pondering it for months.  I freely admit that it’s an arcane point, but one worth mulling.  If teachers are to be compensated like the professionals that they are, why was the most powerful local in the country, the UFT, unable to roll together a salary schedule combining both a livable wage for beginners and top level salaries commensurate with professionalism? 
I think this is a fascinating historical question, the consideration of which may be illuminating for union leaders going forward.
The next lines of Duncan’s speech are interesting to consider in light of this question
We must ask and answer hard questions on topics that have been off limits in the past like staffing practices and school organization, benefits packages and job security—because the answers may give us more realistic ways to afford these new professional conditions.  If teachers are to be treated and compensated as the true professionals they are, the profession will need to shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation to rewarding effectiveness and performance.
As a union leader and as a socialist I maintain a healthy skepticism here.  The devil is in the details.  The devil is also in the question of whether the practitioner’s voice will be decisive in these matters.  We can see from the gutting of regulations for for-profit colleges that in the current environment money dominates education policy in particular and politics in general.  But for that fact, I would be a lot more receptive to the secretary’s challenge.
If teachers and our unions can seize upon these matters of “topics that have been off limits in the past” and shape them in ways that work for students and workers, there may be a way forward here.  But it will take a constitutional amendment negating Citizens United to make it possible.
Just some things to ponder….

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