If Charters Are Public, What’s Up with Those Exec Salaries?

Warhol Dollar” by Incase

January 13, 2017; Connecticut Mirror

If you make your living by heading up a school system, at least in Connecticut, it pays to choose to work for a charter school system. Core to the ongoing controversy about what role charter schools should play in our nation’s public school systems is the issue of school funding. Proponents of charters strongly suggest they are a more effective and efficient way to ensure that children get a quality education. Their detractors see them as siphoning away funds that are needed by traditional public schools and operating without the necessary level of accountability and oversight. So when the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, recently released a study of charter school management salaries, it threw more fuel on this fire.

The Connecticut Mirror examined the data collected by the CEA and found that, based on the size of the schools, many “charter school leaders [make] far more than the average public school superintendent and in the ballpark with superintendents of large or wealthy districts.”

During the 2012-13 school year, the most recent for which state data is available, the average traditional public school superintendent’s salary was $150,700. In districts where the charter schools are located, the leaders are paid $227,000 (New Haven), $234,000 (Bridgeport), $194,000 (Hartford), and $151,000 (Stamford). The traditional schools enroll many times the number of students. Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford, for example, each enroll about 20,000 students.

The two co-leaders of the Achievement First Charter system, with an enrollment of about 4,000 students each in Connecticut and 7,600 more in New York and Rhode Island, earned more than $260,000; at the two-school Domus charter system in Stanford, the chief executive was paid $325,000 in 2014, a level that would make him the highest paid superintendent in the state.

Public school advocates point to this disparity as a clear sign of how charter schools misuse short-in-supply public funds. Mark Waxenberg, the leader of the CEA, told the Mirror of his concerns about overpaid executives and growing charter administrative costs. “Charter school management has become big business in Connecticut,” he said.

From the charter schools’ perspective, the union is making much ado about nothing. “The CEA is really grasping for straws,” said Jeremiah Grace, the state director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. Dacia Toll of Achievement First pointed out that her compensation has not changed significantly since 2014 and that she will not receive the public pension that traditional public school superintendents receive.

Comparative data is hard to find, but available Bureau of Labor Statistics data on administrative salaries in schools would seem to support the position of the charter supporters.

While charter school executives made $72,000 in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported average annual salaries of $90,800 for education administrators in elementary and secondary schools as of May 2012. Charter schools are often smaller than public schools and have more limited budgets. This is one reason charter school executives may earn less than education administrators in public schools. Education administrators earned $73,050 in religious organizations, or parochial schools, according to 2012 BLS data.

If public schools of any kind pay unreasonably high salaries, it is an issue to be addressed. The larger issue—how schools are financed and whether we are supporting all schools sufficiently—should not get lost in the haze of what may indeed be just a side issue.—Marty Levine