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Analysis: Salaries, School Spending & Inflation — When the Numbers Don’t Add Up

The NEA is calling out some scary teacher pay numbers in its latest 'Rankings & Estimates' report — but they're not necessarily what they seem

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For more than 60 years, the National Education Association has produced a statistical report that compiles public education financial data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Called Rankings & Estimates for short, it is a reliable and often-cited source of data on enrollment, expenditures, staffing and salaries. I frequently use it myself, as numbers sanctioned by NEA itself can’t be challenged on account of ideological bias.

The report tells us that “no set of tables tells the entire story of a state’s education offerings. Consideration of factors such as a state’s tax system, provisions for other public services and population characteristics also are needed.”

It warns, “Therefore, it is unwise to draw conclusions based solely on individual statistics in this report.”

NEA then proceeds to draw conclusions based solely on individual statistics in this report.

“If we want to reverse course and keep qualified teachers in the classroom and caring professionals in schools, then we must increase educator pay across the board and expand access to collective bargaining and union membership for all those working in public education,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in a press statement accompanying the report.

NEA’s key takeaway: “Despite continuing to nurture and educate students amid unprecedented pandemic conditions, teachers are shockingly bringing home $2,179 less per year, on average, than they did a decade ago (when adjusted for inflation).”

That’s alarming, but it lacks context, or any sort of explanation of how it came to be so. Fortunately, it is possible to add context and an explanation, much of it with data directly from NEA’s own report.

The United States spent an estimated $734 billion on public education at all levels of government this school year. That comes to $15,047 per student, a 4.8 percent increase over last year, which was a 5 percent increase over 2020. Forty-nine states plus the District of Columbia increased per-pupil spending in 2022. Texas was the lone exception.

In fact, per-pupil spending increased 13.7 percent in constant dollars over the last 10 years. So how is it that teacher salaries are 3.9 percent lower over that same period?

It’s easy to see if you examine the year-by-year data. The average increase in teacher salaries over that 10-year period was 1.65 percent. The increase for 2021-22 was nearly the same: 1.69 percent.

The difference, of course, is that we have inflation rates this year we have not seen in decades. In one year, inflation ate up this year’s increase and the inflation-adjusted gains from the previous nine years.

Few states or school districts anticipated this level of inflation and accounted for it. NEA is using the information to influence future spending, as is its role, but the numbers are not evidence that teacher salaries have been neglected over the past 10 years.

If overall school spending is so much higher in constant dollars, why haven’t teacher salaries kept pace with those increases?

For that answer, we have to depart NEA’s numbers and head over to those of the National Center for Education Statistics. Though complete only through 2018, they show public school employee salaries at almost the same level (in constant dollars) in 2011 and 2018.

So where did the additional money go? Spending on employee benefits rose almost 20 percent in constant dollars over the same period.

NEA will always want a bigger pie for teachers, but no matter how large it is, it always has to be divided up. More for salaries might mean less for benefits. More for both might mean less hiring. More for all of those things might mean less for curriculum, maintenance or school construction. And more government spending on everything creates inflation, which reduces the purchasing power of those increases.

No one enjoys this kind of calculus, but in the real world, adding and multiplying alone doesn’t always equal a positive number.

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