Market forces for products, not people

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There is a lot of discussion about teacher pay in the United States, and Colorado is no exception. What gets less attention is the pay rate of school district employees such as teachers’ aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, clerical workers, and custodians, collectively referred to as “education support professionals.” Nationally, these support professionals number 2.2 million, while classroom teachers number 3.2 million. The National Education Association analyzed federal data and found that there is no state in the country where education support professionals earn enough, on average, to support themselves and one child while living in the state’s most affordable metropolitan area.

The pay ratios within school districts are quite narrow compared to the private sector. The Economic Policy Institute found that, in 2020, the CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 351 to 1, yet within many school districts, the school-superintendent-to-lowest-paid-employee is closer to 10 to 1. The narrow pay range in school districts is partly the result of having much smaller budgets to work with. Additionally, employee unions, a general sense that teachers should be paid as much as budgets will allow, and wage standards set by the educational community can also be credited with the narrow pay range in school districts. School superintendents may oversee thousands of students and employees, and earn about five times the average teacher’s salary.

Although the lowest-paying positions in school districts generally hover just above minimum wage, school districts often provide health insurance as well as state retirement plans to employees who work less than full-time but more than 20 hours weekly. These benefits, which often are not available in the private sector, attract support personnel, so schools are able to retain these employees. But why can’t they pay a livable wage?

The simple answer is that there is not enough money to go around. The more nuanced answer is that low pay is acceptable in our economic system, so schools, which, to quote educational philosopher John Dewey, “are a reflection of society,” pay some of their workforce as little as possible, mirroring the private sector. If schools were to further emulate the private sector, they could follow the lead of Taco Bell.

Presently, many Taco Bell restaurants are offering only drive-thru meal service. To some degree, a similar change has taken place in schools. Nearly two-thirds of Colorado school districts are on four-day school weeks. Denver Public Schools is offering sign-on bonuses for bus drivers, special education paraprofessionals, and others. While a four-day work week and sign-on bonuses might pacify workers for a while, they do not provide livable wages.

Perhaps another way to address low wages paid by schools would be for schools to limit the number of people they hire to only the number of people that their budgets can afford to pay a livable wage. Schools receive funding based on the number of students enrolled, but in an attempt to provide as many services as possible to their students, school districts have stretched these dollars by paying a large share of their workforce low wages. If a school district were to decrease its number of paid positions to a number that it could pay a livable wage to, a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the decrease at around 25%. Of course, no school board is going to advocate for such a radical move. It would result in curtailing essential services. Instead of students attending school four or five days per week, they would attend perhaps only three days per week. If bus drivers and cafeteria workers saw their time at work decrease 40%, this translates roughly to a 65% hourly wage increase (assuming total wages are left unchanged). 

Four-day school weeks and employee sign-on bonuses might be the harbingers of changing pay structures and school structures. Schools are experiencing staffing shortages as their lowest paid employees leave the industry and demand higher wages. The underpaid workers in essential industries are in a position to demand and receive livable wages. If they were to stop showing up for work, society would feel the impact.  

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

Email: editorial@boulderweekly.com

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