School-based OT salary is a topic that comes up frequently in the community. And with good reason – we all deserve to be paid what we’re worth! However, it can be tricky to know what an appropriate salary is because it varies so much based on location and other factors. I’ve seen school-based OT salaries all the way from $36,000 to $142,000 a year. Luckily, school-based salaries are much more transparent than most OT settings. Since public school pay is public information, you can typically find salaries on your school’s website. However, there are a few other factors that come into play, such as which salary schedule OTs appear on, how our experience and education play a part, and what pay looks like for independent contractors. Also, one quick warning before we dive into it: there are a lot of vocab terms that may seem unfamiliar if you’re an OT from another setting, but hang in there, they will all make sense soon!
Finding the Salary Schedules
It’s usually pretty easy to find the salary listing for a given school district. This is usually called a “salary schedule” and is housed somewhere on the district’s website. Rather than searching through the website though, I’ll usually Google something like “[your school district] salary schedule.” This will typically take you straight to the page you need rather than combing through the website to try to find it. So if you’re looking to see what you might be able to make as a school-based OT, I recommend doing this for each district where you would consider working. This is also a good practice to do if you’re already working as a school-based OT and wondering if your pay is on par with other local districts!
School-Based OT Salary Schedules
Depending on the size of the district you’re researching, you may find a lot of different salary schedules! This is the part where it sometimes gets tricky as district websites are not always clear about which salary schedule OTs will fall under. Sometimes we’re on the teacher salary schedule. Sometimes we’re on a schedule with school psychologists and other service providers. Sometimes we’re on our very own OT salary schedule, though this is rarer in my experience.
Let’s take one example from a district that does make it clear where OTs fall. LAUSD in California is one of the largest school districts in the country. From this page that I was able to easily find on Google, we know that OTs fall under Pay Scale 33D on the Special Services Table. It also lets us know that OTs will be on a B-Basis, which for them means the regular school year + Extended School Year. Then, this page provides all of the Salary Schedules (here called Salary Tables) and allows us to easily click through to the aforementioned Special Services Table. When we follow that information in the table, it leads us to the following salary numbers (as of August 2021):
One Year of Experience: $6,493.76 monthly or $77,925 yearly
Two Years of Experience: $6,852.63 monthly or $82,232 yearly
Three Years of Experience: $7,235.53 monthly or $86,826 yearly
Four Years of Experience: $7,654.94 monthly or $91,859 yearly
Five Years of Experience: $8,086.92 or $97,043 yearly
So, using this information, you will immediately have a good idea of how much you would make as an OT in this district!
Factoring in Education and Experience
Education and experience definitely matter when it comes to school-based OT salaries, perhaps more than any other OT setting. While LAUSD’s salary schedule stopped at 5 years experience, I’ve seen many other positions go much farther. Another factor that was missing from the LAUSD schedule was what is often referred to as “Grades,” or, your type of degree.
Let’s look at another salary schedule for example, this one from Denver Public Schools. DPS actually has a handy little calculator on their website that will tell you exactly what you could expect to make based on your experience and education, but for our purposes let’s practice reading another salary schedule. DPS puts their teachers and SSPs (Specialized Service Providers, which OT falls under) in the same schedule. You’ll notice that across the top of this table is listed a bunch of different degrees, such as BA, BA+18, MA+36, all the way up to Doctorate. And each of these degrees correlates with one of the aforementioned “Grades,” from 1 – 7. Then, in the left-hand column, you’ll see the “Steps” listed from 1 – 20, which is the same as years of experience. So, to calculate your salary from this table, simply follow the chart to the box that represents your years of experience and degree. For example, an OT with a Bachelor’s degree and 15 years of experience would make $67,878.
Education and Experience that Matters for School-Based OT Salary
So this is the part where it gets a little complicated. For teachers, education and experience are pretty cut and dry. You’ve either been teaching for 5 years or you haven’t. You either have a Master’s degree or you don’t.
But for OTs, we may have many years of experience – that took place in another setting. So does this count for experience on a salary schedule? Or is it only school-based OT experience?
The answer is that it depends. Which can be a good and a bad thing! It means that our salaries are perhaps a little more flexible and negotiable than other professionals working in the schools. I’ve definitely known OTs who were able to count their years of experience in other settings towards their salary. I’ve even known some people to be able to leverage their work before they became an OT towards this, with the reasoning that it was pediatric work that would serve them well in the schools.
But, I’ve also known people who were placed on Step 0 or 1 of their salary schedule because they were unable to get experience in other settings recognized. This can be especially frustrating for OTs who have a lot of experience in other settings and feel like they’re starting over when they come to the schools.
To complicate things, your degree is not as cut and dry either. While most school districts will pay more for someone with a Master’s degree, there is variability within this. What is important to know here is that most Master of Occupational Therapy degrees require many more credits than a typical Master of Education. So, even if you “only” have a Master’s degree, you may be able to advocate for higher placement on the salary schedule (such as Master’s + 36) if you can prove those credits. Keep in mind that this won’t work everywhere as some districts only accept credit that was completed after a Master’s degree was awarded, such as going back for a certificate program.
With all of these caveats, I would still very much encourage you to try to negotiate where you fall on the salary schedule. And the best time to do this is when you’re on the verge of accepting a position, not after. While the district may say no, I would advocate for all the education and experience you bring to the table. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself! Something else to keep in mind is that this is much easier if you have some sort of leverage, such as if the district already knows you and really wants you to work for them, or if they’ve had trouble filling the position.
Other Factors to Consider with School-Based OT Salary
Remember that unlike most other OT settings, school OT jobs are not typically year-round. While there are exceptions to this, most school jobs actually are 9-10 months out of the year. So if you’re comparing OT salaries between settings, it may be helpful to do the math to figure out a 10-month salary’s equivalent if you were getting paid that much 12 months of the year.
Schools also tend to have pretty good benefits that are also generally listed online. And some school districts may even have stipends that will increase your pay even more, such as a pay differential for working in special education. Lastly, keep in mind that salaries are often renegotiated yearly, so it’s possible that you may get an additional raise in addition to what you’re already getting from gaining another year of experience. These are all factors that may mean school-based OT salary is actually a better fit even if the base salary in another setting is higher.
School-Based OT Salary for Contractors
Not every school-based OT works directly for the district. Some school districts contract out some or all of their OT services. For those districts that have always contracted for all of their school-based OT, they may not even have published pay information the way they do for district hires.
So how can you tell what a good rate of pay is for a contract school-based OT? Of course, the answer is again that it depends. Even if you’re a contractor, I definitely recommend looking up the salary schedules for the schools in your area so you can get a ballpark of what a good range is. If you’re paid hourly as many contractors are, simply take the salary and divide it by how many days/hours are in a contract to come to a ballpark hourly rate. So if a school-based OT was making 75,000 based on working 180 seven-hour days out of a year, you would see that the hourly rate equivalent is $59 an hour. Keep in mind that this number will be the salary rate minus any of the applicable benefits. So if you’re contracting directly with the district and being paid on a 1099, you’ll likely want to be paid a higher hourly rate than this to account for the lack of benefits. But if you’re an employee of a contracting agency who is working with a school district, you may instead have access to benefits through them that could justify an hourly rate that was in line with the school’s.
Potential Issues of Contract School-Based OTs
One thing that is dicey about contracting with schools rather than being a direct-hire is that sometimes contracts aren’t set up very fairly. Some school districts or contract agencies will only pay the therapist for the time they’re spending directly assessing or treating students. But being a school-based OT has many other responsibilities, such as documentation, teacher training, travel, and IEP meetings. This puts OTs in a situation where they either have to choose between getting paid for their work or skipping out on certain parts of the role, which ultimately leads to worse outcomes for students. I’m a big proponent of getting paid for every minute you work for several reasons, but if you do find yourself in the position of having to accept a contract like this, make sure your hourly rate is much higher than what the salary would be to justify all the unpaid time.
Another thing to consider when finding a fair rate of pay for contract OT jobs is what you’ll be required to provide. For example, district hires have access to standardized assessments that are purchased by the school. But as a contractor, you may be expected to provide things like this or treatment materials yourself. It just depends on how the contract is written. If you’re an employee of an agency that is contracting with the school, you should not be expected to personally purchase anything for work, but your agency certainly might. And if you’re thinking of becoming a contract agency owner, especially one that hires other therapists, these are all factors you’ll want to consider both when choosing the rate you’ll bill the school district as well as what rate you can pay your employees.
My last warning with contractors in the school system is this: you may not be one! There are school districts out there that pay all of their therapists as independent contractors on a 1099 with no benefits. But legally, in the eyes of the IRS, many of these therapists are actually employees. If your school district tells you when and where to work, requires you to complete specific training, and is employing you indefinitely, it’s quite likely that you are their employee. The good news is that you would not personally be “in trouble” with the IRS if you were misclassified as a contractor. The bad news is that your district may be trying to save money on taxes and benefits and may be required to pay back certain employment taxes if they’re found to be in the wrong. This is why you’ll see many districts beginning to have their contract OTs form their own LLCs and other corporations in order to better justify their independent contractor status.
While I can’t tell you a specific rate for a “good” school-based OT salary, I hope this information helps you figure out what that looks like for your specific position! We all deserve to be paid fairly, so I hope this article empowers you to know what appropriate compensation looks like in your region. If you’re looking for more support with advocating for yourself and getting paid what you’re worth, I’d love to have you in The Dynamic School OT. This is a comprehensive course that goes beyond just intervention and assessment strategies to teach you all about school-based practice, including how to have hard conversations like this one.