Thom Ritenbaugh, who teaches art at a public high school, will make $90,000 next year, more than some young lawyers and accountants in his well-to-do suburban Philadelphia neighborhood.
The big paycheck highlights a trend that education experts say is a potent threat to inner-city schools: Wealthy districts are quickly raising salaries to retain experienced teachers and scoop up new ones.
In many states, including New York, California and Texas, the gap between the highest- and lowest-paid teachers is widening. Similar trends exist in school systems in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon and Massachusetts.
''The problem is that school districts are having trouble keeping their most experienced, highly qualified teachers in the profession,'' said Richard Ingersoll, an education professor who researches teacher pay at the University of Georgia.
''So those who can afford it are making sure that they are in the best position to retain good teachers. They are putting down the big bucks and not paying attention to any past notions of what a teacher should be paid.''
Just down the highway from the spacious lawns and two-story houses of Council Rock School District in Newtown, where Ritenbaugh works, some experienced teachers in urban Philadelphia are making around $35,000 -- about the national average.
Although Ritenbaugh receives the highest pay in his district because he has a doctorate and 20 years of experience, the median salary for teachers in Council Rock is $85,000.
''I love what I do and I value that the district sees my career as important enough to make a substantial investment,'' Ritenbaugh said.
Some experienced teachers in the New York City school system make $32,500, while new teachers in the White Plains district in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., received a $1,500 raise last year to make $37,583.
In Los Angeles, teachers with five years' experience make $29,500, while some teachers in Beverly Hills with similar experience recently received increases that brought their salaries to $73,400.
Typically, the schools paying high salaries employ a large share of experienced teachers, while the low-end districts employ larger numbers of new hires.
Ingersoll said his research shows the phenomenon is leading veteran teachers to pack their bags and head for the money.
The widening gap should worry urban school districts because it means some of them will be increasingly subject to teacher shortages.
''What this tells us is that the problem of flight is not going away and quite possibly could get worse,'' said Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin education professor who heads the federal Consortium for Policy Research on Education.
Still, few in education begrudge districts the right to dole out big paychecks for highly qualified teachers.
Al Fondy, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, said the solution is to find a way to pay teachers more across the board.
''There is nothing wrong with what Council Rock is doing,'' Fondy said. ''They are simply trying to take advantage of their resources to provide the best education possible for their students. The state needs to provide more funding for districts with fewer resources so that they can pay teachers more. The bar needs to be raised for everyone.''
David Yates, the principal at Council Rock High School, said he believes other districts could pay better salaries but simply choose to spend their money elsewhere.
''Other people think technology, textbooks and facilities are the way to improve education,'' Yates said. ''Council Rock has put money into teachers. We believe you can build the Taj Mahal for education and with mediocre teachers, schooling will fail. Conversely, you could open a school on the third floor of a barn with great teachers and kids will learn.''
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