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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Report: Limited state funding has dragged down Wisconsin teacher pay

A Cudahy School District elementary classroom.
Emily Files
A Cudahy School District elementary classroom.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that teacher salaries haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living.

Last school year, teachers' median gross pay was about $59,000. If pay had kept up with inflation, teachers would be making more than $67,000.

"That median teacher pay just continues falling further and further behind inflation," says the report's author, Policy Forum Senior Researcher Sara Shaw. "Likely because districts aren’t receiving the revenue to keep up with ongoing costs."

You might think the stagnating teacher pay goes back to Act 10, the law that limited teachers unions' collective bargaining rights. A lawsuit was filed last week seeking to overturn Act 10.

But Shaw points out that Act 10 allows school districts to increase wages up to the rate inflation. So Act 10 alone can't explain why salaries have fallen behind inflation.

Instead, Shaw says state revenue limits appear to be the driving force behind lagging teacher pay.

Revenue limits cap the amount of money districts can spend per student. They're meant to keep property taxes in check.

The limits used to be tied to the rate of inflation, but that provision was thrown out in 2009. Since then, the Legislature has generally not increased revenue limits at the rate of inflation.

"Without a change in revenue limits, we know that there will still be constraints on districts' spending," Shaw says. "And teacher compensation makes up a majority of districts' expenditures."

Despite limited revenue, some Wisconsin school boards approved significant pay increases last year — in response to high numbers of teacher vacancies and record teacher turnover.

Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Green Bay gave teachers 8% salary increases. Kenosha, Sheboygan and Waukesha approved 4% increases.

Shaw says it may be challenging for districts to afford the compensation increases in years to come.

At a time when the state of Wisconsin has a record $7 billion budget surplus, some Wisconsin school districts are facing budget deficits. Some districts are considering school closures, others are turning to taxpayers for more money.

"It's a little bit of a catch-22 for districts that want to retain their staff and compensate them at the level of inflation," Shaw says. "If they're not receiving an increase in their revenue in the same amount [as teacher raises] that immediately creates a shortfall and a mismatch."

Districts are looking at painful cuts to balance their budgets — including closing school buildings.

Shaw says since the policy forum's teacher pay report was released, some social media commenters argued that record inflation over the past couple years caused many workers to have less buying power — not just teachers.

But Shaw notes that teacher pay has lagged inflation even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic changes.

"Certainly this is something affecting a lot of professions, but it does seem to have been an issue in education even prior to the recent occurrences," Shaw says.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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