Chicago Principals & Administrators Association

the failures of cps' approach to

Principal &
Assistant Principal Compensation


As Chicago Public Schools revamps its compensation model for Principals and Assistant Principals, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association has serious concerns regarding CPS’s approach to compensating the people who lead its schools.  Our concerns regard the following:

  • The skewed and institutionally racist nature of focusing salary comparisons to other “large urban school districts,” and the similar nature of the limitations CPS puts on its statewide comparisons.

  • The complete failure of CPS to analyze the working conditions of principals and administrators.

  • The backward policy of taking assistant principals’ pension contribution away from them should they become principals.

  • A complete lack of long-term vision and commitment to establishing a competitive compensation system that attracts and retains the most skilled and talented people to lead the schools that serve the children and families of Chicago.

 If CPS is going to stem the yearly exodus of leadership talent, it’s going to have be much more thoughtful, thorough and realistic about the need for far more competitive salaries and working conditions for the people leading its schools. Our children deserve better.

 Within the paragraphs of the analysis provided below we have included a thorough discussion of each of the issues listed above.

1. Faulty Comparison

In the beginning of the salary benchmarking section of a CPS compensation pre-reading report, it states, “Although the principal and AP jobs vary from place to place, it is important to compare compensation systems of other large districts.” Comparing CPS salaries to salaries offered in other “Large,” “Urban,” or “Big City” districts across the country is extremely problematic when one takes into account (1) the comparison ignores key principles of labor market competition, (2) the racially segregated and racially isolated nature of large urban school districts, and (3) the resulting disservice done to predominantly low-income African American and Hispanic students when institutionally racist comparative limitations suppress the amounts considered when setting salaries to attract and retain skilled and talented people to serve these students. Each of these problems is explored below.

A. Ignores Labor Market Forces

When any institution sets a price for a good or service, the number one factor in determining the price is the market. Markets can be local, national, or international. If the market for your product is a local one then you don’t set a price based on the prices in a different local market. You set it based on your local market. That is, while oranges may be fifty cents per pound in Florida, they might be $1.00 per pound in Illinois. If you’re an Illinois orange seller and you base your price on a local market in Florida, you will have under-priced your inventory and paved a road toward financial ruin.

A similar kind of logic is at play in salaries and labor markets. There are American careers that operate within a national labor market, such as college professors. Universities compete for the top scholars in a national market for the best academic talent and those scholars regularly relocate across the country for more prestigious and better-compensated posts. There is however no vibrant national labor market for K-12 educators. When principals leave their district for another principal position, it is typically for a better position in a different but nearby district. That means that if a district wants to recruit the best school leaders for its students, it must set a salary that competes with nearby districts, not districts in other big cities halfway across the country.

In limiting the point-of-reference to other large urban school districts, CPS completely ignores the fact that school districts compete for school leaders in a labor market that is primarily local, not national. Put simply, it doesn’t matter what Detroit is paying its principals when the best talent available to Chicago’s students will be poached by the nearby school districts of Oak Park, Niles Township, La Grange, Roselle, and River Forest—all of which pay their school leaders significantly more than Chicago does.

If the number one objective of CPS’ compensation group is retention--as is stated in the pre-reading documents--then CPS must focus their salary comparison on the districts to which CPS principals flock when they leave.

If CPS is serious about retaining principals, it’s going to have to undergo a major correction to its comparative perspective.

There are 52 school districts within a 15 to 45-minute drive of Chicago’s West Loop whose principals have higher median earnings than principals in CPS. In 22 of those districts principals earned more than $20,000 more; in 17 the median earnings were $30,000 more; principals in a dozen districts took home $40,000 more; and in eight districts principals took home $50,000 to $65,000 more per year than CPS principals. These are the districts to which principals flock when they leave CPS. If CPS is serious about retaining principals, it’s going to have to undergo a major correction to its comparative perspective.

Among the median district salaries CPS is competing with are the following:

This analysis reveals that while Chicago salaries may be comparable to those of other “large urban districts,” they don’t stack up as well in the labor market that actually matters. If CPS is going to stem the yearly exodus of leadership talent, it’s going to have get serious and realistic about principals salaries and working conditions.

CPS should base its assessment of the salaries of its own school leaders on a comparison of salaries in school districts that compete most aggressively with CPS for leadership talent. We’re sure you will agree that our children deserve the same level of talent available to the children of Hinsdale, Evanston, and Maine Township. A significant increase in salary is one of several things CPS will have to implement in order to recruit and retain that level of talent.

While some may call Chicago principal salaries “competitive” with other big cities, Chicago is far less competitive when you look at where our actual competition is: nearby suburban school districts.

B. Historically Racist Underpinnings

Underlying CPS’ failure to conduct a sound market-based comparison of administrator salaries are the racially biased assumptions that permeate the comparison CPS chose to make instead. We make no claim of intentional racism here. There are however institutionally racist assumptions in the manner in which CPS leadership has framed and constricted the base of comparison for compensation of CPS principals and assistant principals.

Part of what makes racism functional is the fact that a critical mass of people all hold the same negative race-based assumptions. As a result of more than three hundred years of race propaganda, the negative assumptions tied to race are a powerful and pervasive part of our culture, and they are nearly always in play.

Racial prejudice by itself however, is not racism. Racial prejudice is a belief about the people assigned to a racial category. Racism is the power to have a substantial negative impact on people’s lives based on their racial category—the power to act on that prejudice. In emphasizing comparisons of its salaries to those in other large urban districts, CPS officials are acting on such prejudices, whether they are aware of it or not.

In order to grasp the extent of CPS’ deeply flawed “large urban district” comparison, we must acknowledge two things: first, we must acknowledge that large urban districts are segregated, often inequitable systems that serve a majority low-income population from African American and Hispanic communities. Second, we must imagine a segregated school system in 1950’s Mississippi. Imagine a principal in a segregated African American school arguing for adequate pay, and his district officials respond by saying, “you make as much as other principals in segregated Black schools” while ignoring what principals make in equally segregated schools that serve white students.

This is essentially CPS’ argument. “You make as much as other principals in large urban districts.” If the universal characteristic of large urban districts is that they are segregated districts that serve poor minority students, then what CPS is saying in effect is “you make as much as other principals who serve poor black and brown students.” This line of reasoning cannot stand. It is an insult to our work, and a blatant excuse for disinvestment in African American and Hispanic students and their families.

If the universal characteristic of large urban districts is that they are segregated districts that serve poor minority students, then what CPS is saying in effect is “You make as much as other principals who serve poor black and brown students.”

C. Cheats Low-Income African American and Hispanic Students

An investment in the salary set to attract and retain educators is an investment in the students these educators will serve. When CPS fails to emphasize LaGrange, River Forest, Oak Lawn, Niles Township, and dozens of other local school districts in their salary comparison, what they say by omission is that “big city” children who are Black, Hispanic, and low income don’t deserve a similar investment. They don’t deserve to learn in a school system that attracts educators with the competitive salaries that will keep the best of them in Chicago. Again, we make no accusations of intentional racism; we are not mind readers. However, we can clearly see the racially disparate results of CPS’ omission, whether intended or not.

An investment in the salary set to attract and retain educators is an investment in the students these educators will serve.

The race and class disparities promoted by restricting compensation comparisons of urban educators to one another are abundantly clear. At least ninety percent of CPS’ student population is nonwhite, and over eighty-six percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. Judging the adequacy of the compensation levels set for the people who educate these children compels us to examine the compensation levels of nearby districts that serve a different demographic. Obvious job market forces make decent levels of CPS compensation a good thing for Chicago’s children: the better the salaries and working conditions, the more likely CPS is to recruit and retain the best school leaders for its students. The implication of CPS’ restrictive comparison however is that the poor African American and Latino students in Chicago don’t deserve the kind of high quality teachers and school leaders attracted and retained by the salaries in districts that serve suburbs like Winnetka, or Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, where in 2011-2012 the average teacher salary was $116,044. That’s average — not top. Their average teacher earns more than the average CPS assistant principal for what is likely far less time and work. That is what Chicago is competing with, and our children deserve a better representation of that competition than the misleading restricted comparisons that have been used thus far.

The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association is disturbed by the fact that when CPS did indeed make comparisons to other districts in Illinois they included similar restrictive qualifiers. In other words, the point of comparison used to establish salaries to attract talent to their schools is artificially suppressed through the use of parameters that have little relevance to the task at hand. For example, their analysis restricted in-state comparisons to “districts with at least 5 APs” or “districts with at least 5 principals.” When principals and assistant principals leave CPS, they don’t narrow their job search to districts “with at least 5 principals.” They look for positions in districts that are (1) nearby, (2) have competitive compensation, and (3) have a reasonable workload and working conditions.

Again, we make no claim of personal or intentional racism. However, as CPS continues to blame the State of Illinois for what it calls a racially discriminatory funding system, it is disappointing to see the administrator compensation team’s intellectual work being restricted by prejudicial assumptions with similar toxic biases about the worth of the work of school leaders who serve primarily African American and Hispanic students who come from poor families.

2. Failure to Analyze Working Conditions

Among the variables that determine working conditions are the workload and responsibilities of a principal, and the staffing support principals have to meet those responsibilities. We have interviewed and surveyed principals in both CPS, and principals who have left CPS to work in nearby districts. We will include more of their commentary in future communications. For now we want to emphasize a key variable that speaks volumes in regard to the profound lack of staffing support--and resulting deplorable working conditions--that CPS principals have to endure as a result of the district’s disinvestment.

The ratio of students to certified staff (principals, teachers, counselors, assistant principals, etc.) to service student needs is perhaps the best indicator of the staffing supports in place to help principals accomplish the core educational mission of their schools. The Illinois State Board of Education has 854 school districts listed in it district data file. Of those 854 districts, where is CPS in regard to the ratio of students to certified staff?


CPS is almost dead last in on this critical measure of staffing supports in place to help schools and their principals accomplish their mission. So while our principals work in a district with so many at-risk students that they need far more professional staff in place to service their students, what they get is -- in fact -- far less than what is needed. Take the following comments from an award-winning CPS principal who left for a position in a western suburb. We asked her to describe the differences between her new district and CPS.

  • First, we have sufficient staff to support the needs of all students. I have a nurse, social worker, and student support specialist (dean) who work full time, five days a week, and at one school. Support staff in CPS are assigned to 2-3 school buildings and mostly to support students with IEPs or compliance (nurse). The staff is not in the building enough time to support all students' needs and to form relationships with school staff. Also, CPS does not provide a school dean to support culture/climate in every elementary school.

  • We have an Instructional Coach at each school to support teaching of best practices in a non-evaluative role...helping teachers plan with new standards in all content areas now as well as new curriculum in most. CPS provided in-school coaches for one year (08-09 maybe) to implement new reading curriculum. This model was not sustained.

  • We have two administrative assistants in all schools, so the principal is not the primary person to do budget/purchasing. The Admin. Assistants do student attendance, payroll, employee absences, budget, and manage school activity planning. In CPS, the budget includes one school clerk for all of these duties.

She went on to describe significant differences in the support her school received for special education, curriculum support, and socioemotional learning among others. Again, If CPS is going to stem the yearly exodus of leadership talent, it’s going to have get serious and realistic about the salaries and working conditions of the people lead its schools.

3. Pension Policy: A Deterrent to the Principalship

The manner in which this group has been led has not put enough sustained attention on the backward policy of taking Assistant Principals' pension contribution away from them should they become principals. This policy is both backward and bizarre. One would be hard-pressed to imagine that any institution in the United States -- public or private -- would lodge such a monumental disincentive in the way of talented people as they seek to assume greater leadership.

4. Lack of Long-term Vision and Commitment

There is no long-term vision that imagines compensation in a CPS that is not in perpetual budget crisis. In addition to looking at the present fiscal limitations and planning an immediate salary scale within those limitations, the district must put some work and imagination into an ideal compensation package. It must design what it believes is a compensation package that pays school leaders the actual worth of their work -- and then use that same imagination to develop ideas for generating adequate revenue for that purpose.

Where we see nearby Illinois districts whose principals’ median earnings are less than CPS, those districts often serve students from low-income African American and Hispanic communities. These districts however do not have something that Chicago does: a vibrant economy from which to generate revenue adequate enough to make substantial investments in the personnel who educate our students, including teachers, counselors, and other staff who serve as critical resources for student development. Yet CPS and City Hall have demonstrated zero commitment to imagining a system of compensation and working conditions that would keep the best leaders and educators in our schools. Nor have they imagined ways to generate the revenue to fund such a system.

Instead, CPS’ compensation plans are made with the assumption that it’s going to operate in perpetual crisis mode. This is unacceptable.

CPAA will be working with our members and policy makers to imagine such a system and work steadfastly toward its realization. CPS is welcome to join us in that effort.