by James A. Bacon
In my never-ending quest to bring to you, the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, a keener insight into the dynamics of Virginia’s educational system, I present the chart above, which shows the correlation between average teacher salaries at Henrico County schools and the percentage of children on free or reduced lunch.
Why would anyone possibly be interested in such a chart? Because there is a widespread concern about the “disparities” in resources made available to schools in Henrico’s poor East End and its affluent West End. That concern surfaced politically most recently during the debate over the meals tax but it had been bubbling for a year or more before then.
Last month I showed that staff-to-pupil ratios at Henrico County schools favored schools in poorer neighborhoods (as measured by the percentage of pupils enrolled in free/reduced lunch programs). Schools in poor neighborhoods had fewer students per teacher/staff/administrator than schools in affluent neighborhoods. That seemed strong evidence that claims of disparities were exaggerated — if anything, poor schools got more resources — but there was one significant data point missing. People argued that East End schools couldn’t hang on to more experienced teachers who used their seniority to snag jobs in schools with easier students to work with. In effect, by this line of logic, affluent schools got the better teachers — a qualitative factor that would not be captured by raw staff-to-pupil ratios.
Accordingly, I went in search of data to address that point. Andrew Jenks, director of communications for Henrico County Public Schools, supplied me the 2013-2014 Fall Financial Verification Report, which contains average teacher salaries at each Henrico County school (on pages 18 to 21). From that data I charted teacher salaries against free lunches. (To see the data underlying the chart, click here.)
First the facts…. Average teacher salaries in Henrico vary within a fairly narrow band — $44,482 for Sandston Elementary being the lowest and $51,371 at Godwin High School being the highest.
While some “poor” schools have higher average salaries than some “rich” schools, overall, there is a correlation between average pay and poverty level. Roughly speaking, teachers at schools with the fewest poor kids have annual salaries about $2,000 higher than teacher at schools with the most poor kids — a pay differential between 4% and 5% higher.
However, those numbers do not include incentive pay. In 2010 Henrico County won a five-year, $16 million federal grant to pay bonuses to teachers and administrators at schools with among the poorest student bodies in the county. That program, open only to teachers in core subjects at eight schools, pays teachers up to $8,000 annually and administrators up to $10,000 when students show superior academic performance.
Now the interpretation… Yes, a pay gap exists, so the people who focus on “disparities” can feel partially vindicated. But how significant is that pay gap? Does a differential of 4% to 5% really make a difference in the quality of teachers? Who’s to say that teachers with more seniority do a better job? One could argue that they’re more seasoned at running a classroom. But one also could argue they’re more likely to be burned out and marking time until retirement. Who knows? I don’t think we can presume anything. We need to see the research on the impact of seniority on teaching outcomes.
Thus, the argument about disparities in Henrico County cannot yet be settled conclusively. However, my sense is that a pay differential of 4% to 5% is not such a yawning gap that it can account for starkly different educational outcomes. If you want to address disparities in educational outcomes (higher test scores, higher graduation rates), there probably are more important things to worry about.