Originally published in Washington City Paper on January 30, 2019.
Liz Koenig has been working in D.C. charter schools for seven years, and at the same charter for the last five. She used to be a lawyer. “My first-year salary as a teaching assistant was less than my year-end bonus as an attorney, which blew my mind,” she recalls.
When Koenig took her current teaching job, she didn’t know anything about her charter’s salary schedule, other than what she had been offered to start. In the middle of her third year, she asked HR if she could review her school’s pay scale, because she was trying to figure out how her salary might increase if she obtained additional teaching credentials.
“I’ve always been interested in getting a master’s in dual-language teaching for ELL [English language learner] students, or a master’s in curriculum and instruction of literacy, but I’m a mother of two kids, and before I take that leap, I wanted to understand what I could expect to earn at my school if I did get those credentials,” she says. “I can’t take on any more debt. I still have debt from law school I’m paying off.”
But Koenig was denied that information, as are most charter teachers in D.C. “There are 120 schools but you can’t just call them up and learn their salary schedules,” she says. “It puts us in a position where we can’t make informed choices about where we work. Charter schools are free markets for all the parents and kids, but screw those teachers.”
Koenig says if she leaves her school, she’ll probably head to DC Public Schools, “where at least I’ll have the transparency.” Even without getting extra credentials, Koenig estimates she could be earning about $15,000 more right now in DCPS.
D.C. is nationally noted for its above-average teaching salaries—the minimum starting rate for a full-time DCPS educator is $56,313, and the average DCPS teacher earned over $76,400 in the 2016-17 school year. But publicly available information about D.C. charter school salaries is surprisingly scant. And unlike DCPS, charter schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
This past fall, the State Board of Education released a report on teacher retention in D.C. schools, prepared by Mary Levy, an independent budget analyst. As part of her research, Levy combed through the annual reports published by each individual charter school organization, where, in addition to publishing information about teacher attrition, most schools also report their minimum, maximum, and average teacher salary. The DC Public Charter School Board requests charters report this information, but does not require it, and so some charters, like DC Prep and Washington Global, decline to provide the salary data.
Still, using what information she could find, Levy estimated the average D.C. charter school teacher salary in the 2016-17 school year amounted to $60,499.
Yet she has reason to question the precision of these self-reported figures. When Levy was compiling data for her SBOE report, she found that most of the charter schools that reported attrition of over 50 percent in fact had far less. “What that says is there’s an assumption that nobody would look at these annual reports, and whoever filled it out apparently confused the words ‘attrition’ with ‘retention,’” she says. “It makes a big difference if anyone actually uses the data. Then the people who are submitting the information tend to be more careful.”
Tomeika Bowden, the spokesperson for the DC Public Charter School Board, confirmed that her organization does not collect any additional information on charter teacher pay.
City Paper asked the State Board of Education if it had ever tried to learn the salaries of D.C. charter school teachers. “The SBOE has not requested that information because it does not fall within the purview of the Board’s work,” answered John-Paul Hayworth, the board’s Executive Director. When pressed on how that squares with the SBOE’s focus on teacher retention, Hayworth said the State Board generally avoids making recommendations on hiring practices, including contract length, performance assessments, and salaries. While the board might recommend that schools report the overall expenditure on teachers in a school, Hayworth added, it “wouldn’t request individual-level information.”
Though charter teachers earn much less than their DCPS counterparts, administrative pay in the charter sector has been rising at a fast clip, according to public records.
According to salary information posted each year on the DC Public Charter School Board’s website, between 2016 and 2018, staff working at the DC Public Charter School Board received raises averaging 12 percent annually. And in 2017, according to nonprofit tax filings, the average annual salary for the top leader at each D.C. charter was $146,000. Only three charter heads earned less than $100,000, and eight earned more than $200,000.
Summary statistics aside, the sector is replete with examples of steep salaries and quick raises. Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School and the highest-paid charter official in D.C., received a 24 percent salary increase between 2015 and 2016, from $248,000 to $307,000. Then, in 2017, she received another 76 percent increase, bumping her compensation to $541,000. Patricia Brantley, head of Friendship Public Charter School, received a 33 percent raise between 2016 and 2017, increasing her pay from $231,000 to $308,000.
Outside of school heads, other high-ranking charter administrators also claimed significant salaries. In 2017, KIPP DC had four administrators making approximately $200,000 annually, and its president earned $257,000. The chair of Friendship, Donald Hense, earned over $355,000 annually between 2015 and 2017, and its CFO earned between $171,000 and $197,000 in each of those years. DC Prep’s Chief Academic Officer earned $203,000 in 2015, and $223,000 one year later. The board chair of AppleTree Early Learning earned over $231,000 annually each year since 2015, reaching $245,000 in 2017. 990 tax forms list another 110 charter administrators earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, although this list is likely not comprehensive, as schools are only required to disclose their top five highest-paid employees. 2018 figures are not yet available.
In one remarkable instance, Sonia Gutierrez, the founder and former CEO of Carlos Rosario, who now sits on the school’s board, earned $1,890,000 between 2015 and 2017. Board chair Patricia Sosa, when contacted about this large sum, says much of that had been awarded as deferred compensation from Gutierrez’s time working between July 2010 and December 2015. However, according to tax records, she was also paid an average of $326,000 annually during that period.
Research conducted on other cities has shown that administrative spending tends to be higher in charter sectors than in traditional public school districts. Still, administrative spending has also been a concern in DCPS, and it was one of the major points Washington Teacher’ Union leaders brought up during their last round of contract negotiations. And in Denver, Colorado, public school teachers are currently threatening to go on strike over wages, with teachers calling attention to Denver’s above-average spending on school administration.
For their part, charter school executives defend their current salaries as standard for the sector and necessary to retain top-tier personnel. But there may be a risk that within-sector salary comparisons result in administrator paychecks rising in sync with each other, rather than reflecting an underlying demand for staff.
Ironically, as charter administrators claim they need high salaries to compete for executive leadership, teachers complain that the opacity of their salaries makes bargaining for higher pay near impossible.
Last week, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy—a network of four charter schools in D.C.—announced it will be unilaterally closing its Chavez Prep Middle School next year, and merging its two high schools. The network says this new closure and merger are due to lower-than-expected student enrollment, i.e. a revenue shortfall.
Chavez Prep is the city’s sole unionized charter school, and Christian Herr, a sixth grade science teacher at the school, says the lack of a clear salary schedule was one of the main reasons he and his colleagues were motivated to form a union. “When we were organizing our union, we learned things were just all over the place in terms of who got paid what, and there wasn’t a clear progression,” he says. “Your salary basically depended on how much a principal liked you, or what you were willing to ask for, or demand. The people with the same amount of experience and degrees got paid differently.”
The Chavez Prep union has been negotiating its first contract since the summer of 2017, and establishing a more transparent salary schedule has been one of their top priorities. What will happen to the union next year is not yet clear, and teachers say they plan to launch a full investigation into the reasons behind the closing of Chavez Prep.
Emily Silberstein, the CEO of the Cesar Chavez network, tells City Paper that her organization “has a long history of implementing a teacher pay scale that includes educational degrees and years of experience as factors in pay. Each year, the pay scale is reviewed as part of the network’s budgeting process. When updating the Chavez pay scale, we consider the network budget, pay in the D.C. charter sector, and the DCPS teacher pay scale.”
Silberstein says their updated pay scale is shared annually with teachers, and she defends her network’s compensation rates as competitive with other D.C. charter schools—citing a recent study by EdFuel, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit and retain teachers.
City Paper reached out to EdFuel to review the aforementioned compensation study, but Kelly Gleischman, a managing partner, said the study is not publicly available, as it’s currently shielded under a non-disclosure agreement. She says it was published March 1, 2018, and is under an NDA for eighteen months after that.
DCPS gets about $16,000 per pupil from the city’s operating budget, and charters receive a little less than $15,000—though charters also shoulder some additional costs like retirement and building maintenance. Silberstein says she understands why teachers would choose to teach in DCPS if pay was a top consideration. “For highly effective teachers, DC Public Schools is one of the highest-paying school districts in the country,” she says. “I admire DCPS for that and wish D.C. charter schools received the same kind of public and philanthropic support to make such salaries possible.”
“Speaking personally,” says Herr, “if I were at DCPS I would get paid $14,000 more than I do now, and my wife, who has worked at Chavez Prep as long as I have and has two master’s degrees, she’d get paid $19-to-$20,000 a year more.”