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Maren Johnson | Current Affairs, Education Policy | January 30, 2014

What box do I check? Time for a COLA

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by Maren Johnson

My school district sent out a new survey this past week. They were trying to do some planning, and for informational reasons, they were hoping that certified staff would be willing to answer.

I had my choice of three boxes to check on the school district survey:

To help us in planning for next school year we would like to know if you have
plans to earn credits that would change your placement on the salary schedule:

    • Yes, I anticipate earning ______ credits which would advance my placement on the salary schedule.
    • Yes, I anticipate earning my Masters degree.
    • No, I do not anticipate earning credits that would change my current salary schedule placement other than the experience step.

So what box do I check?  None of them quite fit. Yes, I anticipate earning quite a few clock hours/credits this year, but no, this won’t get me anywhere on the salary schedule, and I won't be getting the "experience step" the third box in the survey mentions. I finally hit it this year, that lower right hand corner of the salary schedule. 

At this point, there is nothing I can do to move forward any steps on the salary schedule—no clock hours, no years of experience, no certifications, not even performing hand stands in the middle of the high school commons.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of that before, but filling out this form from my district really drove that point home. Being at this location on the salary schedule means the best use I can make of my clock hour forms might be to put them in my science class blender and use the pulp for my paper recycling lab in biology.  I understand some of the issues involved in salary schedule compression, but still, there needs to be something.

Teachers at this spot on the salary schedule may spend half their careers or more with exactly the same salary. One possible way to change this? A COLA, cost of living adjustment. Washington state voters approved this educator COLA way back in 2000. The state legislature has suspended this COLA for the last five years. In this time, teachers have lost 16% of their purchasing power because salaries have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased.

I recently talked to a National Board Certified Teacher in another area of the state who is passionate about the COLA issue. He said he thought the legislature was, in a sense, “getting off easy” if they restored the COLA. He said if teachers were to receive a COLA, the legislature would get credit for giving teachers a raise (it’s not a raise), and that restoring a COLA now, without it being retroactive, barely even started to address the issue of professional compensation. He’s right. Restoring the educator COLA is the least the legislature could do.

A Career and Technical Education teacher at my school is mentoring a student’s independent study project. The project is a cool one. The student is making iron from dirt, literally. The student made an outdoor furnace and then smelted the ore. The smelting process was a daylong event out behind the school, with many other classes coming to watch.

The CTE teacher took some photos of the equipment and process and posted about it on some online metal smithing forums he is active in. The compliments from metal smiths rolled in. They praised the teacher for being so giving of his own time, and mentioned that they wished they would have had a “good” teacher like him when they were in school. The underlying expectation was that a “good” teacher volunteers their own time.

We as teachers do give of our own time. Willingly. The assumption that teachers volunteer their own time, however, has now become a cultural expectation. That cultural expectation is too often translated into state law in the form of low teacher salaries.

A teacher in a nearby school district recently mentioned that he was looking for a weekend job. Almost anything would do, he said—he just needed to earn some more money. People suggested working at the local hardware store or music shop—he was going to look into these possibilities. Teaching should be a profession where the individuals involved can support themselves through, well, teaching.

This situation is not acceptable. Here in Washington state, we need a world class teaching force. We need to encourage teachers to pursue professional development throughout their career, and we need to attract talented young teachers to the profession with professional salaries. Time for a COLA.

Comments

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Maren and Tom, you hit the nail on the head. Teachers are expected to go above and beyond, attend the games, stay late, build canoes, and it's created a double-edged sword: if we ask for more money to compensate for this, we're labeled greedy; if we keep doing what we know needs done (without compensation) it perpetuates the norm.

I just did my taxes. My income was right at what one piece of proposed legislation currently hopes to pay first year teachers (and I'm in year 12) and I earned about an additional third as much with my side work (including contract work for CSTP/OSPI, odd jobs here and there) to help get ends closer to meeting. We're a one-income household, but unfortunately the norm now is that I've had to supplement my "one income" to elevate to a financial condition just a tad south of "comfortable" but thankfully north of "straining."

I knew going in to this profession that I was not going to be rolling in Gates cash or options, but it has also been a really long time since my wife and I could afford a date night at a real restaurant (the kind with menus you actually hold in your hand) or a splurge on a "fancy" coffee made by someone else. Yes, the COLA might save my marriage. (Kidding. Kind of.) Luckily, we were raised to not have expensive taste or go on vacations, so we're the perfect kinds of people to live on an educator's salary.

But, I'm also now at a point where I'm more seriously looking at careers, not just jobs, outside of teaching.

Awesome post, Maren. It's tough to articulate the rationale for a COLA without sounding whiny. You nailed it.

I've spent the last ten years in the bottom right-hand corner of the salary scale. Five of those have been without a COLA.

You're right about the cultural expectations, but part of that is just the nature of who we are; next week my class is going to begin building a full-sized canoe for our school's silent auction. I'm buying the materials and we're working on it during recess, (my break) and the weird thing is that I can't wait to get started on it!

That said, I really, really think we deserve a COLA.

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