Walk through any independent Milwaukee charter school and one of the first things you will notice is the age of the teachers. Plainly, they look young. An analysis of public school teacher demographic data confirms it.
The average age of a teacher in a non-district Milwaukee charter school is 35.8. In comparison, the average age of a Wisconsin public school teacher is 43.4 (in the Milwaukee Public Schools it is 45.1). Milwaukee charter schools also have a much higher percentage of very young teachers; 27.5% are under the age of 30 compared to 11.5% statewide.
What explains the age difference? Talk to a charter school advocate and you might be told younger teachers are more energetic, more up-to-date on the latest teaching methods, and more willing to teach in an innovative and challenging environment. Talk to a charter skeptic and you might be told younger teachers are targeted by charter schools simply because they are cheaper. There is some truth to both schools of thought.
Milwaukee charter school teachers on average make $40,502.50 in salary and receive benefits worth $10,836.22. The average Wisconsin public school teacher makes $52,202.03 in salary and receives benefits worth $26,793.27. The differences are attributable to disparate public support (charters receives $7,775 per-pupil in state and local funding while public school students generate an average of $9,809 in state and local revenue per-pupil), differences in the quality of benefits offered, and of course age.
Milwaukee charter schools, by virtue of being non-union and exempt from certain state statutes, are also free to easily do more innovative and experimental things. This likely does attract certain young teachers eager to try new approaches.
However, the main reason independent charter school teachers are younger than traditional public school teachers is less exciting. Annual rounds of layoffs (thankfully stemmed this year) and the entrenched seniority system has made entry-level teaching jobs in MPS hard to come by, leaving younger teachers wanting to work in an urban environment left with charter and choice schools.
Why does the age difference matter? A brief review of Wisconsin’s 20 largest school districts shows no signs of a correlation between average teacher age and district reading and math proficiency. There is also no prominent academic research suggesting a link between teacher age and student performance. Yet the difference in the average age of traditional and charter school teachers is important; it is prominent evidence of an outdated and ineffective approach to school district personnel policies.
Across the state teachers historically retain their position because of seniority, not because they fit in with and are adding to a school’s mission. However Act 10 changes things considerably and there is good reason to think the charter/ traditional public teacher age gap will close.
First, school districts are no longer bound by seniority when making personal decisions. This should give qualified young teachers a better shot of getting into public school districts. Second, increased employee pension contributions statewide as well as district-by-district changes to employee benefit packages will make many public school benefit packages look more like what is offered to charter school teachers. Aggressive cost-control changes made by MPS in particular, including salary freezes, increased health care contributions, and furlough days, may make charters a more attractive option to some current MPS teachers.
Closing the age gap will be a good thing for Wisconsin pupils. Not because charter schools need older teachers or because traditional public schools need younger teachers, but because it means structural barriers to putting teachers in situations where they can most positively impact student outcomes have been removed.