What teachers unions can learn from NBA players

NBA Players Association President C.J. McCollum heads an effective labor advocacy organization.

Over the past two decades, taxpayers across the country have increased their investment in public education.

One surprising group hasn’t seen much benefit from this spending growth: Public-school teachers.

A new report by the Reason Foundation looks at the state of public education funding. It shows that even as public-school revenue increased by 25 percent from 2002 to 2020, teacher salaries actually declined by 0.6 percent.

States with strong unions and larger-than-average per-student funding increases tended to see larger growth in teacher salaries, but those connections aren’t uniform. Major culprits for stagnant teacher salaries include escalating benefit costs (health care and pensions are growing more expensive and crimping potential salary increases) and district officials wary of long-term salary commitments.

As Reason’s Christian Barnard writes in Education Next:

[C]ompensation and staffing decisions are made primarily at the school district level, and district leaders have different incentives than governors or state legislators. While state officials might focus on how their teacher salaries compare with those of other states, district leaders are more concerned with day-to-day school operations and competing with neighboring districts for staff. Additionally, district budget officers are risk-averse and thus inclined to deploy new dollars toward marginal support personnel additions rather than increases to teacher salary schedules that lock them into longer-term commitments. Consequently, district leaders rarely plan to take advantage of staff attrition and re-purpose funds for raises.

To be fair, district leaders may have limited latitude to make these kinds of shrewd budget decisions, especially in localities with strong teacher unions. A chief budget officer in Los Angeles or Chicago would likely roll their eyes at any suggestion that they should make long-run budget tradeoffs; even if financial course corrections are desperately needed, their collective bargaining agreements would never allow it. And since nearly one-quarter of the country’s public school students live in one of the largest 120 school districts, a handful of contracts in union-friendly states can exert outsized influence on overall staffing and salary trends.

If they want to make salary increases a priority, unions could use another tool to help hold management’s feet to the fire. They could arrive at the bargaining table with a clear demand that teachers receive a guaranteed share of school district revenue.

They could borrow a model from unionized workers in a different industry: Professional basketball players.

The National Basketball Association makes money when people buy tickets to see games or tune in on TV. They tune in or buy tickets to see the players on the court. Those players are unionized, so they’ve struck a deal to ensure that when the league makes more money, so do they.

The NBA Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement revolves around the league’s “basketball related income”—the money teams make from ticket sales, TV broadcast and streaming rights, sponsorships, and so on.  Each year, the salary cap is pegged at 44.74% of that year’s basketball related income, minus the projected cost of player benefits, divided by the number of teams. Each team is required to spend up to 90% of the salary cap on player salaries or face financial penalties. Teams can spend above the salary cap, but to help ensure fair competition, big spenders face escalating restrictions on draft picks and transactions.

The details get complicated, but the basic idea is simple. The players are the main reason people watch games. They generate most of the league’s value. So, when the league makes more money, so should the players.

That is the case that any teachers union could make to its local school board. Our members are the ones in the classrooms, teaching students every day. Without us, teaching and learning wouldn’t happen. Therefore, when our district gets more money, so should the teachers.

Even if teachers used the NBA salary cap as a benchmark and demanded that districts direct 44.74% of new revenues to teacher salaries, they would make spending decisions dramatically more teacher friendly. (And that would be a modest start, focusing on new revenue, not total revenue).

According to Reason, the state with the best track record of prioritizing teacher salaries was Massachusetts, where only 34 cents of every dollar of new per-student funding increases went to teacher salaries. The national average was seven cents.

Perhaps it’s time teachers demanded, and received, their fair share.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.