Chicago teachers' wages are the focus of a major political battle - not because their salaries are out of line in a legitimate comparison - but because people are playing politics with teachers' pay.
Understandably in these difficult times, much of the reporting on the Chicago teachers' strike has focused on teachers' pay. Most influentially, reporting from The New York Times strongly implies that Chicago teachers are already seriously overpaid.
In particular, the Times claims that: "A first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree makes about $49,000 in Chicago, the fourth-highest of the 114 districts surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group."
Chicago also scores 10th out of 113 school districts surveyed by the NCTQ for the highest pay-step for teachers with master's degrees, with an annual pay of $85,200.
The Times further boldfaces a claim that Chicago teachers are seeking a 16 percent raise over four years on top of their already-high pay, or 4 percent per year.
Note that the Federal Reserve inflation target is 2 percent per year, implying a real raise of just 2 percent per year.
Leaving the raises aside, are Chicago teachers currently overpaid? One might argue that all American teachers are underpaid, and that Chicago teachers are just at the high end of a low range.
But the reality is that Chicago teachers are not overpaid by any scientific metric.
The key here is "scientific." The NCTQ survey on which the Times relies is not a scientific sample of an appropriate comparison population for Chicago city schools. It is a highly biased sample for which no proper methodological documentation is available.
The NCTQ survey includes data from "the 50 largest [districts] in the country, the largest district in each state, and an additional 31 districts" that have won one of three foundation-sponsored prizes for innovation.
In other words, the NCTQ and The New York Times compare Chicago teacher pay to teacher pay in a haphazard collection of places around the country.
Fortunately, more appropriate data sources are available. For example, the Illinois Interactive Report Card (IIRC) published by Northern Illinois University, reports average salary information for all Illinois districts.
According to the IIRC, the average teacher salary in Chicago public schools is $71,236. Chicago is a unified school district, meaning that it includes both elementary and high schools. High school teachers tend to make more than elementary school teachers.
There are only three other unified school districts in Chicago's immediate vicinity: Elmhurst, Elmwood Park, and Westmont. Elmhurst teachers average $76,241, Elmwood Park $70,693 and Westmont $84,368, according to IIRC data.
Other metropolitan Chicago unified school districts have similar average salary levels ranging from the high $60,000s to the low $80,000s.
Clearly, by local school standards, teachers in Chicago's public schools are not highly paid. Quite the contrary. They fall in the low-middle portion of the range.
The pay levels of Chicago public school teachers do not stand out when compared to teachers in other area schools. But how do Chicago teachers compare to other Chicago-area professionals? Once again, systematically collected data are available that rarely make it into press reports.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks wages for 746 occupations in the Chicago metropolitan area. At the top of the list, predictably, sit doctors, dentists, lawyers and executives. No more surprising is the fact that dishwashers, food service workers and cashiers come at the bottom.
How well paid are Chicago-area teachers? The most highly paid group of teachers in the Chicago metropolitan area are high school teachers. They make an average of $68,140 a year. They're the 166th best-paid profession in Illinois; they're not doing so badly.
On the other hand, they're not doing especially well. They make less than advertising sales agents ($69,110), police officers ($70,200), and insurance underwriters ($70,540), despite the fact that these professions typically require less education.
Note that all these BLS figures include part-time workers, so the averages are lower than the full-time equivalent wages reported by the IIRC for Illinois teachers.
Teachers may have good hours and health insurance, but they don't get private-sector-style bonuses when the economy is growing, and they don't retire young like police officers.
In short, it's hard to make the case that Chicago teachers are either grossly overpaid or grossly underpaid. They seem to make a salary that is comparable to that of other teachers in the Chicago metropolitan area, and teachers in the Chicago metropolitan area seem to make salaries that are comparable to those of other professionals.
If Chicago teachers' wages are the focus of a major political battle, that's because people are playing politics with teachers' wages.
No one is playing politics more than the supposedly "nonpartisan" National Council on Teacher Quality. The NCTQ is in a position to know that its data are biased. It should admit this to The New York Times - and give Chicago's teachers a little more respect.