Javier Suárez

Big City Teachers and Big Assumptions

Critics of higher salaries for Chicago teachers fail to recognize market realities, racial assumptions

In the debate over how Chicago’s teachers should be compensated, I have noticed the use of subtle but intensely loaded language by those who seek to devalue Chicago’s children by diminishing the worth of their teachers’ work. There are two major conclusions to be drawn from their sloppy and inconsistent use of language. First, the inherent logic of the language they use completely ignores the market-based principles they claim to value. Second, their argument bolsters the systemic institutionalized racism in the manner in which teachers are compensated in Illinois and across the nation—a racism that negatively impacts students just as much as it impacts their teachers.

The Argument: “Big City” Teachers

Corporate apologists often qualify their disdain for the fact that Chicago teachers make a decent living wage by comparing their salaries to those of other “big city teachers.” Ted Dabrowski of the deceptively named Illinois Policy Institute is a clear example. He and his ideologically pro-corporate and anti-worker organization consistently do a disservice to Chicago’s students by repeating the line that their teachers make as much or more than their “big city counterparts” in places like Atlanta, Milwaukee, or Detroit. However, there are two fundamental problems with using other “big cities” as a frame of reference for compensating the teachers who educate Chicago’s children.

Problem One: Wrong Market

When any institution sets a price for a good or service, the number one factor in determining the price is the market. Markets can be local, national, or international. If the market for your product is a local one then you don’t set a price based on the prices in a different local market. You set it based on your local market. That is, while oranges may be fifty cents per pound in Florida, they might be $1.00 per pound in Illinois. If you’re an Illinois orange seller and you base your price on a local market in Florida, you will have under-priced your inventory and paved a road toward financial ruin.

A similar kind of logic is at play in salaries and labor markets. There are American careers that operate a national labor market, such as college professors. Universities compete for the top scholars in a national market for the best academic talent and those scholars regularly relocate across the country for more prestigious and better-compensated posts. There is however (with a few exceptions) no vibrant national labor market for teachers. When teachers leave their district for better compensation, it is typically for a better position in a different but nearby district. That means that if a district wants to recruit the best teachers for its students, it must set a salary that competes with nearby districts, not districts in other big cities halfway across the country.

Dabrowski limits his point-of-reference to other large urban school districts. In doing so, he completely ignores the fact that school districts compete for teachers in a labor market that is primarily local, not national. Put simply, it doesn’t matter what Detroit is paying its teachers when the best talent available to Chicago’s students will be poached by the nearby school districts of Oak Park, Niles Township, La Grange, Roselle, and River Forest—all of which pay their teachers significantly more than Chicago does.

A Teacher Salary Data Analysis for 2014-15 conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education reveals that while Chicago salaries may be comparable to those of other large urban districts, they don’t stack up so well in the labor market that actually matters. ISBE did not include Chicago in its analysis so I simply plugged the 2014-2015 CTU salary scale into ISBE’s statewide spreadsheet and it revealed the following:

At $54,161, CPS is 46th in the state in beginning salary for a teacher with a Master’s degree. Niles Township is ranked first at $68,072.

At $57,670 CPS is 49th in the state in beginning salary for a teachers with a “masters degree plus.” Number one is Roselle at $75,626.

CPS is 127th in the state in master’s plus maximum salary at $93,146. Number one is La Grange SD 105 South at $137,345

At $97,655 CPS is 135th in the state in highest scheduled salary (teacher with a PhD who has taught for 16+ years). Number one is River Forest at nearly $140,000.

In summary, while Dabrwoski and other anti-worker forces may call Chicago “competitive” with other big cities, Chicago is far less competitive when you look at where our actual competition is: suburban school districts.

Problem Two: Race and Racism

The market-based argument I make above is incredibly important when one looks at the power of compensation to attract and retain the best educators for Chicago’s children, who are often Black and Hispanic students from low-income households. I will take a moment or two to make it clear what I mean when I use the term “racism.”

Racism begins with the idea of race itself, and that idea is a lie. It is a three-hundred-year-old lie that gives exaggerated meaning and weight to a set of differences in physical features we would have otherwise treated as meaningless. It is a lie that wealthy European planters told to the descendants of Africans to keep them in their place, and to the descendants of poor Europeans to give them a false sense of superiority.
Part of what makes racism functional is the fact that a critical mass of people all hold the same negative race-based assumptions. Racial prejudice by itself however, is not racism. Racial prejudice is a belief about the people assigned to a racial category. Racism is the power to have a substantial negative impact on people’s lives based on their racial category—the power to act on that prejudice.

I venture to assert the great majority of Americans—of all racial classifications—act on race-based assumptions without ever being conscious of it. Those race-based assumptions are at play when a school district shuts down forty-nine schools and none of them serve communities composed primarily of residents defined as white. The city authorities have their assumptions about the value of funding neighborhood schools for the students they define as “black” or “brown” and they act on those false assumptions.

As a result of more than three hundred years of race propaganda, the negative assumptions tied to race are a powerful and pervasive part of our culture, and they are nearly always in play. They are at play in the debate about compensation for Chicago public school teachers. When teachers union critics fail to include La Grange, River Forest, Oak Lawn, Niles Township and dozens of other local school districts in their salary comparison, what they say by omission is that “big city” children who are Black, Hispanic, and low income don’t deserve to learn in a school system that attracts good teachers with the competitive salaries that will keep the best of them in Chicago. I make no accusations of intentional racism; I am not a mind reader. But I can clearly see the racially disparate results of their policies, whether intended or not.

The race and class disparities promoted by the assumptions behind the “Big City Teachers” argument are abundantly clear. At least ninety percent of CPS’s student population is non-white, and over eighty-six percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. Judging the adequacy of the compensation levels set for the people who teach these children compels us to examine the compensation levels of nearby districts that serve a different demographic. Critics pretend not to see the obvious job market forces that make decent levels of CPS compensation a good thing for Chicago’s children: the better the salaries (and working conditions) the more likely CPS is to recruit and retain the best teachers for its students. The implication of their argument is that the poor African American and Latino students in Chicago don’t deserve the kind of high quality teachers attracted and retained by the salaries in districts that serve suburbs like Winnetka, or Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, where in 2011-2012 the average teacher salary was $116,044. That’s average—not top.

That is what Chicago is competing with, and our children deserve a better representation of that competition than the misleading anti-teacher spin coming out of the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, and organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute.

Troy LaRaviere is a CPS graduate, a CPS principal, and a parent of a CPS student. He leads Blaine Elementary, one of the highest performing neighborhood schools in Chicago, and relentlessly defends public education. He blogs about education policy and his own observations of CPS policy at troylaraviere.net. Catch Troy’s column every second week of the month.


  1. Perhaps if CTU was delivering the same results they would deserve the same pay,
    but on Average they are not. I agree that the work conditions need improvement, but I don’t think pay is the reason so many teachers leave CPS after just a few years.

    • By your logic, then, John, should the teachers in city schools that show better results than the rest of the schools in the state be paid the same? Similarly, should those teachers whose schools do worse be paid less? And what percentage of the workforce doesn’t accept a job (in any field of expertise) that pays more for the same work–a smaller or larger percentage?

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