Reality on Iowa teacher pay

Serious analysis shows Iowa doesn’t rank as high on teacher pay as the Governor and some media are reporting.

The experience of Wisconsin school districts in the years following Governor Walker’s gutting of collective bargaining for public workers does not bode well for Iowa. School districts are reportedly having difficulty finding teachers. Teachers have been leaving the state, not just for higher pay but because they want to work where their efforts are appreciated and they are respected.[1] Some left for Iowa, and are now wondering where they should go next, as Iowa repeats the folly of Wisconsin.

If we are to keep the best college grads in the state, and attract them here from elsewhere, a good starting salary is part of the picture, even though the prospect of raises down the road seems much dimmer with the end of serious collective bargaining here. So how does Iowa stand in terms of starting salary?

The average starting salary in Iowa for the 2016-17 school year was $35,776. That was good enough to rank Iowa near the middle of the pack — 32nd when compared with other states and the District of Columbia. But some have argued that Iowa has a low cost of living compared to other states, so we don’t need to pay as much. Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) produces a cost of living index for each state. They recommend using that index to make wage comparisons across states, to reflect differences in purchasing power.

The BEA index for Iowa was 90.3 in 2015, the most recent year available. That means it costs Iowans 9.7 percent less than the national average to live. The starting salary of $35,776 would then be equivalent to $39,608 in a state with an average cost of living. Comparing all states in terms of the starting salary properly adjusted for cost of living differences, Iowa ranks 21st.[2]

What about the overall average salary? Unfortunately, the Governor has been citing a bad statistic. A recent NPR report focused on how states ranked on teacher pay when you take into account the cost of living in each state. But they did it wrong. Instead of using the standard cost of living index produced by the BEA, NPR asked a company called EdBuild to do the analysis, and EdBuild used a proprietary index — the Cost of Living Index produced by the Center for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) — that is not reliable and produces sometimes dramatically different cost of living indexes. For example, their index for 2013 (according to EdBuild) had Iowa with an above-average cost of living[2], while for 2015 it was 11 percent below the national average.

What happens if we use the correct adjustment for the cost of living? Iowa’s average teacher salary ranks 15th in the nation[3], not eighth as EdBuild calculated and as NPR reported. NPR is looking into the issue; we await their correction.

[1] David Madland and Alex Rowell. “Attacks on Public-Sector Unions Harm States: How Act 10 Has Affected Education in Wisconsin.” November 15, 2017. Center for American Progress.
https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/economy/reports/2017/11/15/169146/attacks-public-sector-unions-harm-states-act-10-affected-education-wisconsin/

[2] IPP calculations using the National Education Association starting salary data for 2016-17 and the BEA Regional Price Parities for 2015.
[3] Average starting pay of $33,226 was adjusted downward to $33,120, meaning that the cost of living in Iowa was lower than average. http://viz.edbuild.org/maps/2016/cola/states/#salary
[4] IPP calculations using the average salary data for 2015-16 cited in the NPR report and the BEA Regional Price Parities for 2015.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Author: iowapolicypoints

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. We focus on tax and busget issues, the Iowa economy, and energy and environmental policy. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, IPP advances effective, accountable and fair government.

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