Taxpayers in 70 suburban school districts paid more than $4 million last year to send 3,085 teachers back to college.
The tuition reimbursement programs are meant to attract and keep teachers.
But they do more than that.
Since teachers' salaries are commonly tied to their education levels, taxpayers essentially are paying to help teachers make more money.
And since salaries are the biggest driver of teacher pension costs, those taxpayer-funded classes are also helping increase pension obligations.
Tuition reimbursement for teachers came to nearly a half-million dollars in both Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214. Other school districts spent far less, and some, like Elgin Area School District U-46 and Naperville Unit District 203, have no tuition coverage for teachers and spent nothing. That's according to school district financial records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
"Our teachers are our most valuable assets," said District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates. "We're pretty confident that we know our community would like us to maintain and deliver the highest-quality education possible, and I don't think that is debatable."
District 211 spent $457,618 on 128 teachers' continuing education last year, reimbursing them $3,575 on average, according to district records.
The additional education paid off in other ways as well. A teacher who received a master's degree could see as much as a 14.1 percent raise the following year, versus a 2.5 percent raise for those without the advanced degree, according to the district's contract.
Cates added that several teachers were reimbursed for classes the district wanted them to take in order to be certified for "dual-credit" classes that students can take to receive credit at some area colleges. Those classes would still help elevate a teacher's salary and eventual pension.
"Why are we spending half a million dollars to teach high school teachers how to be college teachers? This troubles me on so many layers," said District 211 taxpayer John Parker, a frequent critic of the school board's spending. "I think teachers should have to pay for their own college since they'll get the money back with the higher salary. You can be overqualified for a job."
Seventy out of 92 suburban school districts in six counties -- 76 percent -- offer some type of tuition reimbursement, a Daily Herald analysis of teacher contracts shows. On average, teachers in those 70 districts received $1,313 in tuition reimbursement.
Round Lake Area Unit District 116 had the highest average reimbursement at $4,560 per teacher last year. District 214 spent the most on tuition reimbursements last year at $490,549, according to district financial records.
About a third of District 214's teaching staff took advantage of the perk during the last school year, with 300 teachers receiving reimbursement, district officials reported. A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education showed only 6 percent of the nation's graduate school students received aid from their employer or their parents' employer.
District 214 Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Kurt Laakso said students benefit the most from their teachers' continued education.
"While it does look like we're paying teachers to get educated so we can pay them more, that's a rather superficial view," he said. "We really want to make sure we're investing in the education of our children, and in order to invest in our children, we need to invest in the training of those educating our children."
Meanwhile, the perk is dwindling in popularity among all employers nationwide, according to a survey commissioned this year by the Society for Human Resource Management. The results from 3,481 randomly selected human resources professionals -- including nearly 420 responses from government agencies -- showed 52 percent of employers offered some type of graduate school tuition reimbursement. That's down from 58 percent of employers in 2012, according to the study.
Companies often manage these programs by limiting reimbursements, requiring continued employment commitments and dictating where employees can seek advanced degrees or continue their education. Many teacher contracts have similar measures, but some don't.
Seattle-based coffee purveyor Starbucks began a tuition reimbursement program for qualifying employees four years ago in a partnership with Arizona State University's online undergraduate program. Company officials said about 3 percent of its employees are taking advantage of the funding. The company doesn't dictate what degree its employees can seek and doesn't require the employees stay with Starbucks for a period of time after graduating.
"By the end of this fall semester we expect 120 of our partners will have graduated," said Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman. "From our perspective, we want to tap into the most talented people we can, so that's the benefit to us."
Tuition reimbursement in the private sector is more common for graduate degrees or specialized training, but advanced degrees are not necessarily a guarantee for a higher salary like at most public schools, human resources experts said.
"There is a war for talent," said Adam Ochstein, founder of Chicago-based StratEx, a human resources services and software management firm. "Perhaps what is more common is helping pay off new employees' existing student debt."
Like companies that offer tuition reimbursement, school officials say it helps attract and retain talented employees. But officials in school districts that don't offer such benefits say they don't believe it has hampered their ability to keep and lure the best teachers.
Naperville Unit District 203 offers its educators interest-free loans for college tuition. During the past school year, 19 teachers received $31,360. The money is paid back throughout the year via payroll deductions.
"Our position has been that the board and school district want to reward teachers through salary and we believe our model rewards them in a way that is sufficient," District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges said. "By not offering (tuition reimbursement) it has not proven a hindrance to attract and retain quality educators."
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