As a rallying cry, “We’re 30th in the nation for teacher pay!” doesn’t quite inspire outrage.
But that is, in fact, where Colorado ranked in 2016, despite reports to the contrary.
A series of unfortunate events led to an inaccurate statistic being spread far and wide — that Colorado ranked 46th in the U.S. in teacher pay.
The eye-popping number in a state with a booming economy found its way onto social media posts and signs at last week’s massive teacher rallies in Colorado, as well as into stories in Chalkbeat and many, many other media outlets. But it was wrong.
Here’s how the mistake happened — and how groups with different agendas have seized on the snafu to score points:
The Colorado Department of Education changed its data collection system during the 2014-15 school year and built a new data query system from scratch, officials said. Some teachers were left out of the system, resulting in artificially lower average salaries for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
When the nation’s largest teachers union was preparing its 2017 state rankings, it used the 2016 average teacher salary provided by the Colorado Department of Education. That was $46,155.
Officials in Colorado later realized the actual average salary for the year in question was $51,204. They informed the National Education Association in May 2017, but the report had already been published. The union didn’t update the number until it released its 2018 state rankings, which came out shortly before thousands of teachers rallied at the Colorado State Capitol.
The revised figure meant Colorado ranked 30th in 2016, not 46th, and 31st in 2017.
The average annual salary for last year was $51,810, according to the state education department, and the average annual salary for this year is $52,728. Colorado teacher salaries were 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 in 2017.
As always, that statewide average obscures a wide range of teacher salaries in different districts. The Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000, while many rural districts have averages that hover near $30,000.
Some districts use pay-for-performance and incentive systems that also complicate the picture. The state education department reports base salaries that don’t include those incentives. For example, Denver Public Schools estimates its average salary at $57,753 with incentives included. That’s $7,000 more than the base pay listed on state education department’s website. However, some teachers dislike the uncertainty that this system introduces into their paychecks. The union has negotiated higher base pay and is still asking for changes to the incentive system.
The change in the ranking, which was reported by other media outlets, doesn’t answer the question of how much teachers should be paid or the best way to raise their pay. Nonetheless, the ranking has become a key feature of the debate in Colorado, and it’s unlikely to disappear from signs at protests or the public narrative anytime soon.
In comments on Chalkbeat Colorado’s Facebook page, teachers have continued to cite the incorrect “46th in the nation” figure, while on Twitter, some critics called the stat “fake news” and said teachers shouldn’t complain about pay when they have summers off.
The conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics seized on the new ranking to dismiss the teacher rallies.
“So, if we’re in the middle of the pack for pay, why exactly are teachers rallying today and tomorrow?” said a blog post titled “LIAR LIAR.” “Why are teachers costing the state $11.5 million? Why are teachers forcing families to scramble for childcare? This entire rally is based on nothing. Nothing.”
Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said the change in ranking shouldn’t distract from the problems Colorado faces attracting or keeping teachers.
“We’re still below the national average,” she said. “We’re not in the top 25. If you took out Cherry Creek and Boulder, which are significantly higher than other districts in the state, that average would drop pretty quickly. … For us, it’s not so much about that ranking but do the salaries match where folks are living?”
A report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the cost of living in those communities. At the same time, the cost of living in the Denver metro area has increased rapidly in recent years. Even as teacher pay has increased, it has not kept pace with inflation in many districts.
A recent report that cites American Community Survey data, not the Colorado Department of Education, placed Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – that is, how teacher pay compares to the pay of other people with similar education levels.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.