San Francisco’s public schools face an increasingly complicated budgeting process. As a result, one of the world’s most expensive cities underpays its teachers.
We’ve reported previously on San Francisco’s shortage of public school teachers, and the measures that the San Francisco Unified School District is taking to combat it. But one vital element that has evaded public discussion until recently is teacher pay. Salaries for public school teachers will likely be one of the more contentious issues in the coming political season, as it’s ended up on the losing end of struggles with other funding priorities, such as fixing the pension debt problem, and efforts to keep class sizes small.
If the District and the School Board aren’t facing pressure to revisit how they deal with these competing priorities, they will soon, as the karma of past political choices is is coming back to haunt the District’s balancing act.
Negotiations between SFUSD and the teachers’ union, the United Educators of San Francisco, have been continuing since last year’s contract expired at the end of June. Earlier this month, recent media coverage has highlighted how uncompetitive San Francisco’s teacher salaries really are.
Given that State funding for public schools has actually increased in recent years, why have teacher salaries gotten the short end of the stick compared to these other concerns, particularly in San Francisco? According to a recent Chronicle article, School Board member Mark Sanchez has called for an independent audit of the District budget to provide a clearer picture of what is being spent where.
In the Chronicle article, SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe cited financial commitments to, among other things, smaller class sizes as affecting their ability to raise teacher pay. A backgrounder provided by her office notes:
“SFUSD is also unique in some of its expenditures relative to other districts in that we have some of the smallest class sizes/student teacher ratios; we subsidize nutritious meals for our students, offer early education development, and provide excellent employee benefits, including hard-to-staff and hard-to-fill stipends, extra pay for national board-certified teachers, more than 40 hours of paid professional development per year, and generous lifetime health benefits as stipulated in the contract. To our knowledge, SFUSD teachers are the only teachers in the state to receive an extra hour of prep when they teach an AP class. These investments represent substantial costs that are not typically borne by other districts.”
The drive to reduce class sizes was derived from teacher-student ratio studies done in Tennessee in the late 1980’s, and became a political football in California through the 1990s. Democrats championed class size reduction through this period, which was also marked by recession, ballot fights over bilingual education, and other struggles for public school finance. After the economic recovery and passage of Prop 98, which mandated minimum percentages and increases for school funding, Republicans converted to the cause of class size reduction as a way to fend off attacks from Labor and Democrats. In 1996, a bipartisan bill passed, offering extra funds to districts for every student in a classroom of 20 or fewer in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.
But while the policy continues to be popular politically, some observers contend it’s also led to a cash windfall for suburban districts, which already had small class sizes, and burdened poorer and urban districts with too many inexperienced teachers, who end up being paid less. Meanwhile, more recent studies on class size reduction have come up with mixed verdicts, particularly the way it’s been implemented in California.
While the emerging consensus is that smaller classes can be of most benefit to at-risk student cohorts, the default is to apply the policy across the board, even where it may not make a difference, because of political pressure.
But the far bigger consequence of past political mistakes affecting school budgets may well be the current fiscal crisis facing the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), which incurred an $97 billion (and growing) unfunded liability due to investment losses incurred during the 2008 financial crisis, a projected increase in the lifespan of retirees in the system, negative amortization from accrued interest, and other factors. Much of the difference has to be made up by rank-and-file teachers.
Not only have their pension contributions gone up by over 50% in the last few years–they face baked-in disadvantages compared with school administrators, who get pay increases more often, and thus a greater potential increase in their pensions.
David Crane, former aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, lecturer at Stanford University, and president of the think tank Govern for California, has pointed out that, according to SFUSD’s 2016-17 interim fiscal reports, spending towards pension debt has gone up 106% this year alone. Crane contends that it’s up to elected officials and pension fund board members to work up the courage to spread the burden more equally between younger teachers and current pension beneficiaries.
“Young and new teachers are being clobbered, in terms of compensation, because money is flowing to pay unfunded liabilities to retirees,” says Crane. “The retirees didn’t cause this problem – it was caused entirely by corrupt pension board and elected officials who didn’t properly fund pension promises.” He also pointed out how alarming it is that this is happening during comparatively good economic times, given how public revenues in the State are particularly vulnerable to economic cycles, as Propositions 13 and 98 have forced increasing dependence on income over property taxes. “It’s only going to get worse.
Nevertheless, the first step to solving the problem is opening up the books, which Sanchez’ proposed audit apparently aims to do. Miranda Martin, Policy Director at Parents for Public Schools – San Francisco, sums up stakeholder concerns: “We want transparency. What are the competing pressures that led to this situation? What tradeoffs are being made, that’s what everyone needs to know. The real solution, of course, is to increase the size of the pie.”
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