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Boston charter school leaders' big earnings should help reset expectations in education
Last week, The Boston Globe ran a front-page story on the pay of Boston’s 16 charter-school leaders. Headlined “Charter School Leaders Making Big Money,” it reported that most of the charter leaders earned total compensation of $150,000 to $200,000 in 2016, with three topping $200,000. The Globe pointedly noted that Boston’s superintendent, Tommy Chang, earned $272,000 last year for leading a 55,000 student district—while most of these charter schools enroll something closer to 500 or 600.
What to make of these data? One could obviously conclude that Boston’s charter leaders are wildly overpaid. As education advocate Peggy Wiesenberg told the Globe, “The taxpayers are paying multiple, arguably duplicative top-dollar executive salaries. Will the … legislature wake up when it comes to financial responsibility here?” As the headline on one critic’s piece had it: “Boston Charter School Executive Pay Is Off the Charts.”
But perhaps something else is going on.
It may be that terrific school leaders are underpaid – and these schools are getting it right. In any line of work, those with the skills and stamina to tackle demanding leadership roles are in scarce supply. At least, that’s how presidents of public universities justify salaries that can top a million dollars a year and why corporate CEOs can earn tens of millions a year. Heck, scores of executives at education philanthropies and advocacy groups routinely make $200,000 or more a year – for roles a whole lot less exhausting than leading an excellent school.
After all, Boston’s charter schools are doing terrific things for kids. Stanford University’s CREDO observed in its 2013 national study of charter schooling, “The average growth rate of Boston charter students in math and reading is the largest CREDO has seen in any city or state thus far.” CREDO found that 83 percent of Boston’s charter schools “significantly” out-gained their district counterparts in reading and math and that none significantly underperformed. In 2015, CREDO hailed Boston’s charter schools for dramatic outperformance in both reading and math, and concluded that they offer “essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality” and “serve as models to other communities.” More than 12,000 students are currently on wait lists for Boston’s charter schools.
Keep in mind that effective charter-school leaders aren’t supported by the machinery of a large school district. As a result, many routinely put in 70-hour weeks, spend summers recruiting faculty and students, hustle to maintain a visible presence in their communities and are adept at both meting out student discipline and juggling state-mandated paperwork. As the Globe put it, charter-school leaders have “to network and fundraise, secure properties for new facilities in Boston’s tight real estate market, and manage the growth in students without letting academic achievement slide.”
For leaders doing all of that – and doing it extraordinarily well in an expensive city – is $200,000 really that big a number? In Boston, charter schools are substantial enterprises that routinely spend more than $5 million a year. Roxbury Prep Charter School, with 1,800 students, is a $20+ million venture. In most organizations of that size, landing a talented chief executive for $200,000 a year would be considered a bargain.
In K-12 schooling, of course, where the median principal earned $93,000 last year, such a figure can seem exorbitant. But the problem may be more with our expectations than with what Boston’s charter leaders earn. If there’s one place where Americans desperately want to know that a smart and caring leader is on the job, it’s in the principal’s office of their child’s school. Boston’s charters may simply be paying what it takes to attract and retain talented, high-energy leaders, the kinds of people who are routinely wooed by opportunities to earn far more, a whole lot more easily, by sashaying into educational sales, consulting or advocacy.
When considering whether charter pay is too high, keep in mind that school districts are public bureaucracies governed by standardized salary schedules. Such systems sharply constrain how much high-performers can earn. Such a ceiling also tends to suppress pay across the board. As Matthew Futterman laid out in his riveting 2016 book Players: The Story of Sports and Money, it was the big-dollar free agent contracts for elite athletes in the 1970s and 1980s that started to move the needle on what the public thought constituted “normal” pay for pro athletes.
Truth is, it’s hard to sell big, across-the-board pay increases for public employees. For one thing, when everyone gets an equal share, even huge numbers don’t seem to translate into huge raises. For another, the public exhibits a natural, healthy aversion to raises that treat slackers and superstars alike. But history suggests that, when high-performers are free to earn their due, it resets expectations about what we should expect to pay for quality. The opportunities created by a multitude of charter boards competing for talent may ultimately be the best bet for educators eager to be compensated in a manner that reflects their contribution.
Boston superintendent Tommy Chang has one of the toughest jobs in that affluent city. Rather than wield his paycheck as a cudgel with which to suppress the pay of local educators, it’s time to ask whether someone entrusted with a contentious, crucial, billion-dollar-a-year enterprise should be paid a lot more. Of course, it’s tough for those who govern the Boston Public Schools to make that case to the taxpaying public. This may be just one more reason why it’s a good thing that charter schools are again forcing us to revisit lazy assumptions.
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