Charter school teachers’ pay generally lower — but not always

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a collaboration between the State News and Delaware Public Media.

Teachers in Delaware’s charter schools generally earn less than their peers in traditional public school districts, but that’s not always the case.

“We pay what we pay,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter School Network, an advocacy group for the state’s charter schools.

According to data compiled by the state Department of Education, the average salary paid to charter teachers for the 2018-19 school year exceeded the state average for all teachers in only four of 23 charter schools. The Charter School of Wilmington topped the list with an average salary of $70,999. At eight schools, average pay was $15,000 or more below the state average of $63,822 for the year.

Figures in the state’s database for the preceding four years follow essentially the same pattern.

Special rules — or the lack thereof — help account for the differentials, but the more telling factors are the age of the school and the experience of its teachers.

First, the rules.

While charter schools — public schools that don’t have to follow all the rules that traditional districts do — receive state funds to pay teachers based on those teachers’ experience levels and degrees, they aren’t required to allocate those funds dollar for dollar into teachers’ salaries.

Charter schools receive funds generated by local tax dollars. School districts send charters a per-pupil payment based on a complex formula related to spending in the previous school year. Since spending averages increase almost every year, that means, in most cases, that a charter school will have less money available to allocate to teacher salaries than a traditional district would. To add another layer of complexity, using two New Castle County districts as an example, a charter school would receive more money per student from the Brandywine School District, which has higher per-pupil spending, than it would from the Colonial School District.

Also, Ms. Massett and charter school leaders note, charter schools can’t hold referenda for capital expenses (new construction and major improvements) like traditional schools do, so some of their funds must be allocated to these areas rather than toward salaries. This is especially true in the early years of a charter school’s operation.

Another big difference is that collective bargaining — the way local funding for teacher salaries is resolved in traditional districts — is not a factor at most charter schools. Teachers have unionized at only two charters – Odyssey and Charter School of Wilmington – and the primary issues in those union campaigns related to school management, not salary issues.

In the first years of their operation in Delaware, charter schools tended to set teacher salaries on an individual basis at the time of hiring, with annual adjustments based on performance. Now, according to school officials interviewed for this article, charters have created pay scales that are based on experience and education levels – but, in non-union environments, the figures are set by the school’s directors, not by negotiation.

While the greater flexibility in use of state funds, the lesser availability of local funds and the absence of union contracts all tend to depress salary levels at charter schools, the more telling factors in determining the size of the paycheck are how long the school has been in existence and the experience of its teachers – and they often go hand in hand.

The four charter schools whose pay topped the state average pay have, on average, the most experienced teachers: Charter School of Wilmington ($70,999; 15 years), Newark Charter School ($68,038; 12), Sussex Academy ($66,112; 12) and Delaware Military Academy ($64,416; 11).

Charter School of Wilmington was the first charter in the state, opening in 1996. Sussex Academy opened in 1999, Newark Charter in 2001 and Delaware Military in 2003. At the lower end of the pay spectrum, the eight schools where average pay for 2018-19 was $15,000 or more below the state average, teachers tended to have considerably less experience – between two and seven years on average – and three of those schools had been in operation for five years or less.

“Sometimes, new schools tend to begin with new teachers. They’re growing up with the school,” Ms. Massett said. Some more experienced teachers, even if interested in charters, might not be willing to take the pay cut that working at a charter might entail, she added. Others might be cautious about charters’ overall track record – with nine schools closing in Delaware for a variety of reasons since 2013.

The lowest paying school, the Academy of Dover, with an average salary of $35,757, has been open since 2003, but it has added or reduced the grade levels served four times and it was placed on probation in 2015 by the Department of Education for financial and management issues. In 2018-19 its teachers had an average of four years of experience. The school’s annual report for 2017-18, the most recent posted on its website, noted that it retained only 11 of its 16 teachers from the previous year and attributed the low retention rate to its inability to pay competitive salaries because of the charter school funding structure.

At Freire Charter School in Wilmington, now finishing its fifth year, “pay is equal to or above neighboring charter and district schools,” said Paul Ramirez, the head of school. Even so, Freire’s average pay for 2018-19 was $48,029, largely because its teachers had, on average, only four years of experience, according to the state’s database. Holding down the average experience level at Friere is its use of Teach For America corps members, who undergo intensive teacher training right out of college and agree to teach in high-need schools for two years. Freire usually has two to four TFA personnel on its staff, and six of the last eight to complete their two-year commitment have stayed on fcadeor a third year, Ramirez says.

Salary scales at charter schools tend to be based on the scale used by the district in which the school is located or on averages based upon the districts in which most of the school’s students reside.

At Odyssey Charter School, a Greek-themed K-12 school in suburban Wilmington, teachers at first negotiated their pay with the school’s leaders. Seven or eight years ago, Odyssey adopted a pay scale set at 90 percent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District’s scale. As part of union negotiations last fall, Head of School Denise Parks says, Odyssey decoupled from the Red Clay scale. The numbers haven’t changed much, Ms. Parks explained, but the school is no longer dependent on terms negotiated by entities over which it has no control.

Both Las Americas and Odyssey rest in the midrange of charter school pay and experience. Average pay doesn’t match state levels ($55,409 at Las Americas and $50,684 at Odyssey) but neither does experience (seven years at Las Americas and six at Odyssey).

Eric Anderson, head of Sussex Academy in Georgetown, also has experience with Charter School of Wilmington, where he previously was deputy head of school.

Charter School of Wilmington, located in the Red Clay district and also chartered by the Red Clay school board, had been paying 95 percent of the Red Clay scale, plus annual bonuses based on performance, before deciding to pay at 100 percent of the Red Clay scale. The school’s average teacher pay in 2018-19 topped the Red Clay average – $70,999 to $67,482 – in part because of more experienced teachers – 15 years to 13 – and, Anderson says, because many of those teachers have master’s degrees plus 30 addition graduate school credits, placing them at the top level of the pay scale.

At Sussex Academy, Mr. Anderson said, pay scales are a blend of those used in the Cape Henlopen and Indian River districts, from which most of the school’s students are drawn. The 2018-19 averages demonstrate the fit: Cape’s average pay was $68,046 with teachers averaging 14 years of experience. Comparable figures for Indian River were $64,713 and 13 years. Sussex Academy teachers averaged $66,112 – about midway between Cape and Indian River – even though they had an average of 12 years’ experience, slightly less than the districts’ averages.

“As charters become more established, they tend to have more experienced teachers,” Mr. Anderson said. He has also noticed a back-and-forth flow. “We’ve had teachers leave for Cape, and we’ve also hired some teachers from Cape,” he says.

Such movement is relatively easy in Delaware, Mr. Anderson says, because teachers in both charters and traditional schools participate in the state’s pension system, a situation that doesn’t always occur in other states.

At Charter School of New Castle, which serves elementary and middle school grades, the pay scale is based on averages from the four northern New Castle County districts – Brandywine, Red Clay, Christina and Colonial, says LaRetha Odumosu, executive director of the middle school. Its pay and experience ($53,089 and six years) is comparable to the figures at Las Americas and Odyssey.

While charters do tend to pay less, that does not mean they’re making it a priority to hire novice teachers.

“The winning combination,” Odyssey’s Parks says, is a mix of “teachers fresh out of college and experienced teachers who have been here seven-plus years.”

Charter school leaders say they face many of the same challenges recruiters face in Delaware’s traditional school districts: most school systems just over the state line in Maryland and Pennsylvania offer higher starting salaries; out-of-state districts are able to offer jobs earlier in the hiring cycle than Delaware districts and charters can; and teachers living outside Delaware would rather teach closer to home or be reluctant to move into a state they don’t know well.

The three dual-language charter schools – Las Americas Aspira (which is adding ninth grade this fall as it launches a high school program), Academia Antonia Alonso and Odyssey – encounter an additional complication. The two Spanish-English schools need to hire Spanish-speaking staff capable of teaching specific content areas while dual-language immersion programs continue to grow statewide; Odyssey has an ongoing need for Greek language teachers as its immersion program expands.

But charter school leaders believe they hold a trump card over traditional districts, one that outweighs the pay disparities, and that is the greater autonomy and flexibility they can offer their staff.

Over the years, several schools — most notably Charter School of Wilmington, Newark Charter, MOT Charter and Sussex Academy — have developed reputations for attracting students more committed to academics than those in traditional schools. “That’s a carrot for some,” Sussex Academy’s Mr. Anderson said, “higher performing schools and fewer disciplinary issues.”