Sept. 27, 2017

We analyzed teacher salaries at charter schools. Here’s what we found.

By Mary Niederberger and Stephanie Hacke

Sept. 27, 2017

We analyzed teacher salaries at charter schools. Here’s what we found.

By Mary Niederberger

Marla Woody, reading specialist at the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, administers a reading assessment with second-grade student Taylor Coney, 7, on Sept. 18, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

Much focus on charter schools is placed on how well the students are doing, rightfully so. But beyond the background of each student, it is teachers who have the most direct impact on student growth.

PublicSource already reported on the high teacher turnover in charter schools, and that the teachers there have generally less experience than teachers at traditional school districts.

As salaries often factor into attracting and retaining talent, we requested and reviewed the salaries of teachers at the brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County as well as the cyber charter schools that operate in Pennsylvania. This is what we found:

If you’re a charter school teacher, chances are your salary is lower than your counterparts in a traditional school districts.

Of the 25 brick-and-mortar charter schools that operated in Allegheny County in 2016-17, the median salary for teachers was $43,176.

That’s $10,289 lower than the median salary in the seven traditional school districts who send the highest percentage of students to charter schools (Wilkinsburg, Sto-Rox, Woodland Hills, Duquesne, Penn Hills, Clairton and Pittsburgh Public Schools).

Median teacher salaries at brick-and-mortar charter schools vs. select traditional school districts in Allegheny County

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

The highest median salary was $54,000 at City Charter High School, which also had the highest academic achievement among the brick-and-mortar charters based on state School Performance Profiles.

The lowest median salary among the brick-and-mortars — $35,000 — was at the 1-year-old Provident Charter School for children with dyslexia.

Range of median teacher salaries at brick-and-mortar charters in Allegheny County

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

For teachers at cyber charter schools, the median salary in 2016-17 was $46,433. That median was determined based on nine of the 14 cyber charters whose staff salaries could be reasonably compared.

Although charter school employee salaries are paid with tax dollars and, under state law, are public record, three cyber charters failed to provide lists of employee salaries in response to Right-to-Know requests filed by PublicSource. They are ASPIRA Bilingual, Pennsylvania Leadership and Reach. Reach provided salary ranges.

Two others provided the data, but it could not be calculated similarly to other cyber charters. All but four teachers with the Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation work part time, meaning those employees can’t be easily compared to other full-time teachers. And while Achievement House provided employees’ names and salaries, it didn’t provide its employees’ job titles, so we couldn’t sort out who was a teacher and who worked elsewhere in the school.

Of the nine cyber schools that provided salary data, 21st Century had the highest median salary at $54,371 and the highest academic achievement. Pennsylvania Distance Learning had the lowest median salary at $40,541.

Range of median teacher salaries at cyber charters in Pennsylvania

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

Source: Teacher salary data was collected through Right-to-Know requests submitted by PublicSource to each school or district

For charter students, lower salaries and a lack of job security can lead to teachers being concerned about their jobs and on the lookout for positions with higher pay.

"When you have teachers who fear day after day for their jobs, they are not able to put the energy into teaching that they need to. If teachers aren't secure, eventually it's the kids who suffer," said Carol Mintus, who served as the union president at the former PA Learners Online Regional Charter School [PALO].

Charter operators gave various reasons for paying lower salaries to their teachers.

Some cited fluctuating enrollment, which makes revenue hard to predict.

Others said because of frequent turnover in charter school teaching staffs, teachers don’t remain at the schools long enough to receive raises that would increase their salaries to a higher level.

At Urban Academy, the highest paid educator who is not an administrator is reading specialist Marla Woody. She has a master's in reading and language arts and is in her 16th year at the charter school, where annual teacher turnover can be as high as 50 percent.

She knows her 2016-17 salary of $63,269 was significantly lower than colleagues with similar credentials who work in traditional districts. But her commitment to be the “one steady person” for the students at Urban Academy has kept her at the school.

Marla Woody, reading specialist at the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, administers a reading assessment with second-grade student Taylor Coney, 7, on Sept. 18, 2017.
(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In some cases, charter schools have not been in operation long enough for teachers to reach a high wage.

One example is Urban Pathways K-5 College Charter School, which is starting its seventh year of operation.

“My teachers were all brand new. We brought them in at a lower salary level,” said CEO Kim Fitzgerald.

Propel Schools and City Charter High School approach teacher pay differently.

To improve teacher retention at Propel Schools, financial incentives have been added in recent years, said Superintendent Tina Chekan.

They include pay bumps at the five- and 10-year thresholds and bonuses for teachers who participate in the Teacher Career Pathways program through which they seek ways to have impact beyond their classrooms by helping to coach or train colleagues.

Median salaries among the 12 Propel schools that operated last year ranged from $51,006 at Propel East, which is the highest-achieving Propel school, to $43,000 at Propel Hazelwood, which was the lowest-achieving Propel school. Chekan said the schools with higher salaries are those where teachers have the most years of experience.

"When you have teachers who fear day after day for their jobs, they are not able to put the energy into teaching that they need to. If teachers aren't secure, eventually it's the kids who suffer."

At City Charter High School, pay is based on performance and there are four levels: $44,000 for an apprentice teacher; $57,000 for a journeyman; $70,000 for an expert; and $84,000 for an educational leader.

City Charter CEO Ron Sofo said teachers have earned the rank of educational leader in as few as five years and that there are currently nine educational leaders on his staff. Teachers move through the ranks by meeting performance goals and are assessed by administrators.

“Performance should have some connection to pay,” Sofo said.

He said he believes tying teacher performance to pay is more effective than the traditional union model, where all teachers get the same raise each year.

Woodland Hills Superintendent Alan Johnson said paying teachers lower wages is an unfair advantage given to charter schools. Johnson said all traditional public school districts in Pennsylvania are union shops.

Top-scale pay for teachers with a bachelor’s degree in Woodland Hills is $91,650 and everyone who stays in the district between 17 and 20 years reaches that salary.

Some charter school teachers are unionizing.

Lower pay, the lack of job security and the desire to have a voice on issues like curriculum and best practices have prompted some charter school teachers to seek union representation, said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association [PSEA].

PSEA represents Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College and the Montessori Regional Charter School in Erie.

Among cyber charters, PSEA represents teachers at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Beaver County, as well as Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School and Agora Cyber Charter School, both headquartered in King of Prussia in Montgomery County.

Cynthia Gilmer and senior Hector Navarrete of City Charter High School discuss his independent research project in the senior science Lab. (Photo courtesy of City Charter High School)

Mintus of PALO said job security was a major issue when teachers there voted to form a union in August 2009. PALO was the first cyber charter to unionize in the state.

She said before forming a union, teachers at PALO were at-will employees who were given one-year contracts. After joining the PSEA, she said teachers had more job security, a pay scale and the ability to choose textbooks and develop curriculum.

The school was shuttered in June 2013, a year after its operator Allegheny Intermediate Unit changed its name and format.

At Pennsylvania Cyber, the school’s 130 teachers unionized in 2014 and are entering the third year of their first contract. About 100 blended classroom teachers, whose students split their learning time between digital and real classrooms, are also unionized. And the school’s roughly 80 special education teachers are negotiating their first collective bargaining agreement, said CEO Brian Hayden.

In its infancy, the statewide cyber charter school founded in 2000 had no pay scale. It later moved to a pay step scale where teachers were paid based on experience, Hayden said.

Paying teachers fairly and competitively is important for retention and to show them their value at the school, said Agora CEO Michael Conti. At charter schools, however, he said leaders need to be mindful of enrollment and what funds they will be getting each year.

“We’re not going to get the same thing last year that we got this year and every school year is different. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a, you need to get the crystal ball out and figure out how it’s going to work,” he said.

StoryMary Niederberger and Stephanie Hacke

Mary covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or mary@publicsource.org.

Stephanie is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at stephanie.hacke@gmail.com.

Fact checking and data analysisJ. Dale Shoemaker

Dale is PublicSource's city government and policy reporter.

Amy Tsai, a former PublicSource intern, helped clean and process the data for this story._

PhotographyRyan Loew and John Hamilton

Ryan is PublicSource's visual producer. John is a photography intern for PublicSource.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web development and graphicsNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.