How Much are California K-12 Teachers Really Paid?

We all know public education employees work hard and provide a service we can’t do without – educating our kids.

If we listen to our education leaders, it’s a career chosen out of an altruistic desire to serve society – not for any personal financial benefit. Choosing to be in education means taking a vow of poverty and living a life of clipping coupons, darning worn-out socks, and occasionally having to dine on ramen to survive.


We hear this all the time. Any bump in education funding also brings a chorus of demands that we prioritize increases in pay and benefits for employees. Hands raised for slices of the pie come from support staff and teacher unions as well as well-paid administrators, who want the same increases given to labor groups applied to their paycheck, commonly called a “me too” raise.

And why not? After all, we all “just know” education workers are perpetually underpaid. What better way to improve education than to pay educators more?

California has run what economists call a natural experiment on that. In 2012 voters approved Proposition 30 to increase taxes and “fund better education.” Since then, funding per student has risen at a rate three times that of inflation (6.25% per year), with most of that going into pay and benefits of existing employees. Meanwhile education performance – by every objective measure we have – shows at best flat, and at worst declining performance.

The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress shows only 52 percent of students meet or exceed standards in English, and a miniscule 31 percent in math. The “Nation’s Report Card” puts California 45th in the country, with the drop in performance called “a national concern.” ACT scores have dropped “every year of the last five.”

Even if we wanted to ignore student outcomes and keep repeating what we’ve done in the past, no matter the results, don’t we need to know what education employees actually make, and how that compares to private employees?

You’d think that would be easy. In the private sector, it would be astonishing if a manager considered an employee’s request for a raise without knowing how much they already earn. In education, though, when the taxpayer is signing the check, no one asks, and very few seem to care.

Calls for higher pay are never accompanied by actual data on what education employees really make. Instead we see averages of salary schedules, truly ridiculous pay numbers from websites that rely on self-reported numbers, and media reporting that typically quotes starting pay rates – as if that’s representative of everyone’s pay.

But we don’t see analysis based on actual pay records from school districts.

What if we had real data we could use to determine how much the state’s education employees are really paid?

What luck! That’s what we do here at Transparent California. Compensation data is what we’re all about. Our database has almost 25 million records detailing $1.7 trillion in compensation provided to public employees. This includes over more than 8 million records from public school districts.

That’s hard data from the districts’ own payroll records obtained by our donor-supported part-time staff, who make tens of thousands of legal Public Records Act requests. Every year.

In that trove are nearly 1 million compensation records from 2020, representing districts that teach more than 96 percent of California kids. The records includes both direct paycheck compensation, better known as “pay,” as well as compensation in the form of contributions by districts to retirement plans and healthcare coverage, termed “benefits.”

To examine compensation levels we look at full time “certificated” employees (teachers) only. We exclude anyone who did not make the minimum starting pay of a teacher in that district. If they did not make the minimum, they did not work a full year or are involved in some kind of job-sharing program.

Lastly, we separate out data on pay only – money that comes in paychecks – versus total compensation, including contributions to employee retirement plans and payments toward healthcare insurance. Those contributions are significant, don’t worry, and we’ll see more on benefit costs later in this series.

Our analysis of 2020 data shows the median total pay of certificated employees was $91,067 in total pay and $119,422 in total compensation.

To some that may sound like good money – but we live in California, right? How do teachers salaries compare with those of other state residents?

To look at that we’re going to go with their own contention, heard often, that “if teachers simply used their education in private industry they’d make a lot more.” It’s called the “teacher wage penalty”, and as the Economic Policy Institute, or EPI, says in their most recent study (from 2019),

“there has been a long-trending erosion of teacher wages and compensation relative to other college graduates. Simply put, teachers are paid less (in wages and compensation) than other college-educated workers with similar experience and other characteristics…”

Are they right? Would a teacher be better off using their degree to go to work for a private company? Perhaps the EPI is correct for other states (their study is national), but they’re wrong in California.

Fortunately, we have solid data to use here. The California Department of Education provides data on our teacher force educational attainment. And the US Census Bureau gives us data on median income by education level.

Latest CDE data shows 52 percent of teachers in the Golden State have a bachelor’s degree, and 48% have more advanced degrees. If we adjust the Census Bureau data to match this, we see private employees with education comparable to teachers had a median income of $80,479.

But didn’t we just find that teachers who are “are paid less (in wages and compensation) than other college-educated workers” actually had a median pay of $91,067?

In fact, if we look at pay only, we see California teachers make $10,588 more per year than they would using the same education in private industry. Facts, driven by data.

The above is the sort of work we do here at Transparent California.

Stay tuned for the next in this series, when we look at administrative pay. How much does your superintendent make? And how “plush” are those benefit plans, exactly?

If you think the service we provide is valuable, it would be great if you donated just a bit to that effort. How about $50, about what you’d spend at the bar drinking to forget what we’re showing you …

And click here to watch our Director of Research discuss this on the California Insider vidcast.

Todd Maddison is the Director of Research for Transparent California, and a parent activist working to improve K12 education in our state.

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