Fact-Check: Are Chicago Public School Teachers Among the Nation’s Highest Paid?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the pay increase the city is offering Chicago’s teachers would add to compensation that already exceeds what most other school districts in the country pay.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

While defending Chicago’s offer to the union representing the city’s public school teachers, Mayor Lori Lightfoot claimed it would provide them with a generous salary increase — on top of an already high payscale.

At a town hall Lightfoot held last month, a high school student told the mayor students need teachers to be paid well, emphasizing the role they play in students’ lives.

“I agree with you 100% that teachers are important,” Lightfoot responded. “Teachers do need to be paid well, and in Chicago, they are. Teachers in Chicago Public Schools are paid some of the highest compensation of any school system in the country.”

The city’s offer to increase teacher pay by 16% over five years, Lightfoot added, is “a good deal.”

The city’s last contract with the Chicago Teachers Union expired in June, and the district’s 25,000 teachers and support staff have set an Oct. 17 strike date if a deal isn’t hammered out by then.

Is Lightfoot correct that teachers in Chicago are already among the nation’s highest paid? We decided to find out.

A dearth of data

Under the most recent contract, the district’s base salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree is just under $53,000. The maximum salary a teacher can earn in CPS after years of experience and with higher credentials is a little more than $101,000. That’s before the value of required annual pension contributions the district makes on a teacher’s behalf.

In response to our inquiry, a spokesperson for Lightfoot’s office provided a spreadsheet comparing CPS teacher salaries at different levels in their careers with those in districts in the nation’s 10 other largest cities, and pointed us to some state-level salary data.

But Lightfoot didn’t limit her comparison to what teachers make in other large cities, so we went looking for more comprehensive data to assess her sweeping claim.

None of the sources we found allow for a direct comparison of overall teacher compensation — not just salary, but pension and health care benefits — across all districts nationally.

However, figures compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan policy and research center, make it possible to compare teacher salaries at various levels of education and experience among the nation’s 124 largest districts.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the latest year for which the group has updated figures, Chicago ranked 22nd out of 124 for its starting salary. The survey adjusted for cost of living using a measure developed by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Chicago’s ranking improved for teachers with more years of teaching and higher education credentials, according to the center’s analysis. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree and 10 years of job experience made more under Chicago’s salary schedule than their counterparts in all but two of the districts included in the group’s database.

Even so, Lightfoot didn’t constrain her remarks to the nation’s 100-plus largest districts either. And salary schedules are different than the average compensation a teacher in a given district actually receives.

“A salary schedule really doesn’t tell you what the reality is on the ground,” said Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adding that it doesn’t say how many teachers are actually making that pay. “It says contractually, this is where people would be if they’re at this level.”

So we turned to data obtained by the Better Government Association through an open records request to the Illinois State Board of Education to see how Chicago stacked up within state lines.

The short answer: Not so well.

Chicago Public Schools came out 109th of the state’s more than 800 school districts based on average teacher pay alone. Including bonuses, health and pension benefits, its ranking rose somewhat. But it still trailed 34 other districts, many of them located in the more affluent suburbs outside Chicago and in the surrounding collar counties.

Ben Ost, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us it’s likely CPS trails districts in similar suburbs throughout the nation as well.

Our ruling

Lightfoot said Chicago Public School teachers are “paid some of the highest compensation of any school system in the country.”

Data from teacher salary schedules compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality shows Chicago ranks 22nd among the nation’s 124 largest districts for starting salary. Its ranking also nears the top of the list for teachers with more years of experience and higher degrees.

But Lightfoot didn’t limit her remarks to larger districts, nor to salary. So we turned to Illinois data, which shows CPS ranks well outside the top 20 for average teacher compensation in its own state.

We rate Lightfoot’s claim Mostly False.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.


Video, Mayor Lightfoot’s Periscope account, Sept. 25, 2019

CTU contract, Chicago Public Schools, accessed Oct. 9, 2019

Email and phone interview, Jordan Troy, spokesperson for Mayor Lightfoot, Oct. 2 & Oct. 9, 2019

Email, Michael Passman, spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools, Oct. 8, 2019

Email, Tom Snyder, program director of annual reports and information at the National Center for Education Statistics, Sept. 30, 2019

Email, Celeste Busser, spokesperson for the National Education Association, Sept. 30, 2019

Email, Holly Peele, library director at Education Week, Oct. 3, 2019

Email, Sara Robertson, spokesperson for the Learning Policy Institute, Oct. 3, 2019

Email, Gary Steinberg, spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 4, 2019

Email, Andrew Crook, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers, Oct. 4, 2019

Email, Jesse Rothstein, professor of public policy and economics at the University of California Berkeley, Oct. 6 - 7, 2019

Email and phone interview, Kency Nittler, director of teacher policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, Oct. 7, 2019

General salary data, National Council on Teacher Quality, accessed Oct. 7, 2019

Phone interview, Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Oct. 9, 2019

Teacher pay data for the 2017-2018 school year, obtained via the Illinois Freedom of Information Act from the Illinois State Board of Education

Email, Ben Ost, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Oct. 7- 8, 2019

Phone interview, Chad Aldeman, teacher pension expert at Bellwether Education Partners, Oct. 8, 2019