NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Much Are Teachers Really Paid?

September 3, 2014

A new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis and the MacIver Institute by Pamela Villarreal demonstrates just how important cost of living is to teacher pay. While many teachers might be tempted to move to another area with the hope of higher take-home pay, they should first consider an area's cost of living.

When teachers' unions or public officials discuss teacher pay, they generally compare teachers' salaries in one area with the national average -- the assumption being that teachers making above the average are doing better than those below. In reality, however, costs for the same services vary widely among cities across the country, making some cities far more expensive to live in than others. For example:

  • It costs twice as much to live in Manhattan than it does in Philadelphia and three times as much to live in Manhattan than it does to live in Tulsa. This is because Manhattan housing costs are more than four times the national average.
  • A $130,000 house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would cost $896,000 in Manhattan.
  • One-quarter of the living costs of families across the country is for housing.

As such, Villarreal explains that teacher salaries in what would otherwise be regarded as higher-paying areas are much lower than they appear, whereas cities paying below the national average are actually providing more generous take-home pay to teachers.

The median salary for elementary public school teachers across the country is $53,590. The numbers making up that figure range from $41,940 in Phoenix, Arizona, to $74,540 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But after adjusting for cost of living, many high salaries fall:

  • New York City has the third highest median elementary school teacher salary of $73,000. But after adjusting for cost of living, it drops to $33,152.
  • San Francisco's median salary of $66,350 drops to $41,058 after adjusting for cost of living.
  • When taking into account living costs, Honolulu's $54,640 median salary drops to $32,312 -- the lowest in the nation.

The reverse is also true. Villarreal explains that the cost of living adjustment sends many below-average salaries above the national median. For example:

  • Teachers in Birmingham, Alabama, see their median salaries increase by $7,200 after taking cost of living into account, rising from $51,660 to $58,905.
  • In Columbus, Ohio, median salaries rise from $61,050 to $70,011 after adjusting for living costs.

Notably, the study also compared National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores across 19 metro areas to determine whether students whose teachers were receiving higher pay performed better than their peers. They did not. In fact, the four cities that had the highest paid teachers after adjusting for costs (Detroit, Cleveland, Fresno and Milwaukee) had the worst test scores of the 19 metropolitan areas examined for math and reading.

Source: Pamela Villarreal, "How Much Are Teachers Really Paid?" National Center for Policy Analysis and the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, September 3, 2014. 


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