Teacher Steps in the Law, Not Above the Law

Commenting to “Woonsocket Teachers Receive $4.7 Million in Raises and Bonuses in Current Contract,” Jeff makes an important point in the debate:

While you are pitching accuracy, you might also note that Woonsocket is no different from any other district because steps are part of state law.

The basis of your argument is that teachers are getting raises on steps. Steps also are STATE LAW because there are no promotions in teaching — a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. Everyone agrees a first year teacher should not be paid the same as an experienced 10 year teacher, so can you suggest an alternative to that system that does not involve promotions?

Steps are indeed required under state law, specifically Section 16-7-29, which reads as follows:

Minimum salary schedule. — (a) Every municipality and regional school district shall establish and put into full effect by appropriate action of its school committee in a municipality or regional school district where the school committee is elected, or by appropriate action of the chief executive officer, in a municipality where the school committee is appointed, a salary schedule recognizing years of service, experience, and training for all certified personnel regularly employed in the public schools and having no more than twelve (12) annual steps. The term “school year” as applied to the salary schedule means the ten (10) calendar months beginning in September and ending the following June.

(b) Nothing in this section shall prohibit a freeze or reduction of the monetary value of the steps in the salary schedule through the collective bargaining process.

In the context of the Woonsocket discussion — with a structural deficit of many million dollars, few town assets, shrinking town services, and a tapped tax base — the most relevant language comes in section (b).  If the town thought it prudent, rather than laying off teachers, cutting programs, eliminating the budget for paper, and failing to pay outside vendors, it could have negotiated a contract that reduced each step to the dollar amount of the lower step each year of the contract.  In that way, a teacher moving through the steps would have maintained the same rate of pay.  The school department could also have added two steps for additional flexibility.

Whether that would have been the appropriate move for Woonsocket during the 2009/2010 negotiations is not for me to say. Furthermore, as Rhode Islanders have been finding in the expanded discussion of financial hardship, both municipal budgetary problems and public-sector pensions, sometimes state law has to change to reflect the reality that it creates at the local level.  The existence of a statute does not change the fact that an increase in pay in the absence of a promotion is, indeed, a raise.

I would also note that teachers aren’t terribly unique in the trajectory of their careers.  A copywriter is a copywriter.  A carpenter is a carpenter.  Yet, many Rhode Islanders in the private sector hold such jobs (and prosper) without the assurance of step increases every year.  Public school teachers actually do pretty well, in the comparison, because they also have access to guaranteed raises based on higher education (as described in the Woonsocket article), as well as the opportunity to take on coaching, mentoring, or other extracurricular activities that come with a stipend attached.

But teachers are not barred from making the move to higher-paying supervisory positions.  Arguably, the elaborate system created by laws, policies, and labor rules bearing on pay, benefits, pensions, longevity, and so on limits public-school teachers’ flexibility in their careers.

It is for the people of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and the United States to determine whether the conclusion to be drawn from a full picture of the education system is that we should turn toward more centralized control and increased top-down funding or to a system that eases the complications that policy at every level has imposed.