Berkeley continues to lose teachers. Can the district make them stay?
Seven years ago, Alice Lake got her dream job: teaching ethnic studies at Berkeley High. But this year will be the last for Lake. She quits school, not because she wants to, but because it’s too expensive for her to live the life she wants in Berkeley.
“I’m still in denial that I’m going to turn my back on that job I was aiming for when I was 22,” she said.
She loves her job, but after living with roommates her entire adult life, Lake is ready to have a place for herself and her family. And she sees no way to do that and save money while still teaching at Berkeley.
“My partner and I aspire to one day own a home,” she said. “We’re not on track to be able to do that as East Bay Public School teachers.”
This summer, Lake plans to move to Hong Kong, where she and her husband, who is a teacher in Oakland, will work at an international school that pays teachers just under six figures and offers a housing allowance. (Last year, the Berkeley Unified School District approved a site to build affordable housing for district employees, but it will be years before anyone can move in.)
Lake is one of many teachers who leave BUSD each year, with many citing the high cost of living. Others leave the profession altogether.
School districts typically report the number of teachers they hire each year, not the number they leave — not a perfect equivalent, but close enough. Over the past five years, BUSD has hired an average of 87 new certified employees. But the need for new teachers increased dramatically in the fall of 2021, a year and a half after the start of the pandemic; Berkeley Unified hired 124 new certified employees, which corresponds to a turnover rate of approximately 14%. (There are approximately 850 certified BUSD teachers.)
It is too early to tell how many teachers will leave BUSD this year. At press time, 90 job openings were posted on the district’s hiring website. Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley teachers’ union, said he expects turnover to remain strong.
“There are already many retirements and separations, and many are still happening,” Meyer said, adding that three teachers quit mid-year, which he said was almost unheard of before. Half of the district’s physics teachers will be new next year, and several math jobs will be open as well.
When teachers leave, it has a negative impact on students. Studies have linked teacher turnover to lower student achievement.
Nationally, the entire teaching profession is in crisis. Student mental health is in crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, and some teachers are also struggling after a difficult year in the classroom. In February, more than half of teachers surveyed by the National Education Association said they were considering leaving teaching early, alongside a sharp rise in the number of teacher retirements the year last.
Is the Measure E salary increase sufficient to prevent teachers from leaving?
BUSD has taken significant steps to keep teachers at Berkeley. At the top of the list is highlighted measure E, a parcel tax intended to recruit and retain teachers, voted with 80.5% of the vote in March 2020.
The measure, which brings in about $10 million a year, gave teachers a pay raise of about $3,000 to $6,500 starting in 2020-21, depending on the teacher’s previous salary, according to the annual district report on measurement. This is on top of a 2.5% increase two years ago and a one-time pandemic bonus of 3.5% paid by COVID-19 relief funds. Much of that was won by teachers in a fight for pay rises in 2019.
In 2020-21, the average Berkeley Unified teacher earned $87,269, a 9.5% increase over the previous year, according to a California Department of Education report.
But despite those increases, Berkeley still has lower average, maximum and starting salaries than most Bay Area school districts, according to the Department of Education report. The average Hayward teacher earned $100,338; in San Leandro, $94,964.
“Even with the generous support of Berkeley ratepayers, we are still in the final third of compensation in Alameda County. Without the tax measure, we would be last,” Meyer said at an April 27 board meeting.
Meyer pointed out that salaries listed in state reports do not include benefits. He said some of the county’s highest-paying districts don’t pay much on health care, while others, like Oakland Unified, fully cover health care costs, but he said BUSD remains in the lower third when you take benefits into account.
BUSD teacher salaries increased by 1% from 2020-21 to 2021-22.
At the bottom of the pay scale, a high school freshman teacher with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential would have earned $58,880 this year. At the highest level, a teacher with 23 years of experience, a master’s degree and 12 or more additional college courses would have earned $103,069, according to district compensation guidelines. A handful of teachers work more than a full-time schedule and earn above the top rung.
Teachers also have pension and health care benefits. For each employee, the district contributes between $5,825 and $14,545 a year in health care costs, and teachers pay an additional $4,459 to $12,195 for their health care premiums.
In 2017, a BUSD survey found that only 30% of employees lived in Berkeley, and 54% of surveyed employees who rented had considered leaving due to the high cost of living. He also found that 42% of employees surveyed owned a home, and for them the financial pressures were much less. In 2020, Oakland Unified found similar results — about half said low wages and high cost of living made them want to leave the district.
Last year, Lake’s salary jumped to nearly $90,000 after earning a master’s degree and the Measure E salary hike went into effect. She’s happy with her salary — she said she never thought she’d earn so much — but between paying off student loans, helping family, and paying her monthly rent, saving enough for a down payment is out of the question.
With inflation at 8.5% last year nationwide and rising rents in the Bay Area, will pay increases for teachers in Berkeley be enough?
The teachers’ union is currently negotiating its salary and benefits with the district for the upcoming school year.
“We look at the rate of inflation and ask ourselves, ‘How much pay cut are we going to take next year? And how long are we going to stay here? Meyer told school board directors at an April 27 board meeting.
Find and keep teachers of color
The package tax is also intended to help BUSD recruit and retain teachers of color, an issue that has come before the school board multiple times over the past five years.
Compared to the student body, teachers in the district skewed white. In 2018-2019, the most recent year for which this data is available, BUSD teachers were 66% white, 7% Asian, 7% black and 12% Latino. That year, the district’s student body was 39% white, 7% Asian, 14% black, and 24% Latino.
Fewer black and Latino teachers are entering the profession nationwide, and lately more have left. But while turnover was high last year at BUSD, black and Latino teachers are leaving at similar rates to white teachers.
Of all teachers hired in the past seven years, 58% are still employed by the district, according to a report by the assistant superintendent of human resources. This is true for 56% of hired black teachers, 57% of white teachers, and 58% of Latino teachers. Of the Asian teachers hired in the past seven years, 66% are still employed in the district.
This year, BUSD is taking steps to improve its hiring practices. Historically, BUSD has been “late to release, slow to interview and even slower to hire,” said Spencer Pritchard, head of Berkeley High’s African American studies department and leader of the union’s Teachers of Color network. This is a complaint that has been repeatedly brought to the school board over the past five years.
But this year, in an effort to tap into a larger pool of applicants, especially teachers of color, BUSD has moved its hiring process forward several weeks before spring break. Much of the effort is led by Cat Cabral, who manages the district’s recruiting and retention work.
The district is also working with the Alameda County Office of Education to bring student teachers into the classroom through the county’s teacher training program — the hope is that new teachers will commit to working in the district after earning their masters and teaching students in the district. And BUSD held a job fair in March, attended by 40 potential candidates, and plans to hold another one specifically for special education teachers.
A problem that goes beyond the BUSD
It will take time to judge the impact of these measures on solving a problem that many consider to be more important than the BUSD.
Meyer pointed to California’s funding formula, which ranks lowest of any state in the country when it comes to school funding.
Pritchard said there is “a deeper issue about teachers of color entering education” and teachers remaining in the profession generally. “But at Berkeley High,” he said, “I think our leadership demonstrates that anti-racism is a priority, and that helps.”
Lake hopes to return to BUSD one day, but she said her ability to do so will depend as much on the affordability of the region as a whole as it does on teacher salaries. For now, however, she said it remains difficult to work in a public service profession “and still have a future in this community”.