The Myth of the Underpaid Teacher Lives On

 Yet another “study” showing how poorly teachers are paid has surfaced.

Well, it’s a new school year and there is much tumult in the world of public education. Common Core battles, testing opt-outs, and litigation about school choice and teacher work rules dot the landscape. But with all the uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that there is one thing we can count on in late summer: a new bogus study showing that public school teachers are woefully underpaid.

This year’s entry doesn’t disappoint. “The teacher pay gap is wider than ever,” subtitled “Teachers’ pay continues to fall further behind pay of comparable workers” is a 29-page report released by the Economic Policy Institute, whose mission is “to inform and empower individuals to seek solutions that ensure broadly shared prosperity and opportunity.” If this were an honest statement, the word “opportunity” would be followed by “as long as the solutions are in sync with the union party line.” You see, EPI is nothing more than a union front group whose board includes a rogue’s gallery of Big Labor honchos: AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry, American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, National Education Association’s Lily Eskelsen-García, et al.

And not only do the teachers unions have strong board representation, they donate heavily to EPI. According to the latest labor department reports, 2015 saw NEA present a $250,000 gift to EPI, only to be outdone by the smaller AFT, which kicked in $300,000 to the organization.

The study itself is just what you would expect: loads of numbers that are supposed to make people think that teachers are essentially little more than impoverished serfs, valiantly slaving away for pennies. Among the report’s claims:

  • Teachers’ weekly wages are 23 percent lower than those of other college graduates.
  • For public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ‑8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ‑17.0 percent in 2015.
  • Regardless of experience, teacher wage gap expanded for female teachers.

Needless to say, the unions solemnly wrote about the report as if it were “news,” with NEA blogger Tim Walker suggesting that all teachers get a raise. And as day follows night, the media jumped on board. The relentless and reliably-unreliable Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss dutifully posted the whole report with the title, “Think teachers aren’t paid enough? It’s worse than you think.The Fiscal Times sounded alarm bells with “Teacher Pay Hits Record—but Not a Good One.”

But like most similar studies, EPI’s doesn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison. It omits a few things like the simple fact that teachers work 6-7 hour days and 180 days a year, whereas the study’s “comparable workers” put in an 8-9 hour a day and work 240-250 days a year. (Yes, yes, I know teachers take work home, but so do many other professionals who don’t get summers off.) Also, unlike private-sector workers, most teachers have extensive health benefits for which they typically pay very little, if anything. Furthermore, as University of Missouri professor Michael Podgursky points out, the pension benefits for teachers, which they only pay a tiny portion of – the taxpayer getting hosed for the rest – add greatly to a teacher’s total compensation. (The EPI report actually alludes to this, but buries it on page 14; more on this in a bit.)

Perhaps the most honest and well-researched study done on teacher pay, including the time-on-the-job and benefits factors, was done in 2011 by Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In their report, they destroy the teacher union-perpetuated myth of the under-compensated teacher. Their study, in fact, found that teachers are actually paid more than private-sector workers.

They make the case that workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs “receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.” Additionally, when retiree health coverage for teachers is included, “it is worth roughly an additional 10 percent of wages, whereas private-sector employees often do not receive this benefit at all.”

Biggs and Richwine conclude that after taking everything into account, “teachers actually receive salary and benefits that are 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”

Back to the EPI study. On page 14 of the report, it acknowledges,

Our analysis of relative teacher pay thus far has focused entirely on the wages of teachers compared to other workers. Yet benefits such as pensions and health insurance are an increasingly important component of the total compensation package. Teachers do enjoy more attractive benefit packages than other professionals; thus, our measure of relative teacher wages overstates the teacher disadvantage in total compensation. The different natures of wages and benefits should be kept in mind, as it is only wages that may be spent or saved. Thus, the growing wage penalty is always of importance.

So in essence, the authors of the study come clean in this paragraph and admit that their stress on wages alone overstates the real disparity in pay. The “spent or saved” comment is especially ridiculous. Pension earnings are indeed “saved” for the future. Whatever. It’s obvious that this report is meant to tug at the heartstrings, build righteous indignation and provide local teachers unions with ammo for collective bargaining battles with school boards.

For an honest assessment of teacher pay, stick with the Biggs-Richwine study. But if one is looking for skewed and incomplete data as fodder for a splashy headline or an emotional plea, the dishonest and self-serving union-sponsored EPI report fills the bill beautifully.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

2 replies
  1. Tough Love says:

    Excellent commentary, and as far as the TRUE nature of Public Sector pensions ……..

    The ROOT CAUSE of the pension mess in which most Cities and States now find themselves is grossly excessive Public Sector pension (and Benefit) “generosity”, ROUTINELY 3 to 4 times (4 to 6 times for Safety workers) greater in “value at retirement” (taking into account (a) the MUCH richer Public Sector “formula-factors”, (b) the MUCH younger age at which Public Sector workers can begin collecting a full/reduced pensions, (c) the existence of COLA-increases, virtually unheard of in Private Sector Plans, and (d) the absurdly under-priced early retirement reduction factors for those who retire early) than the pensions typically granted comparable Private Sector workers who retire at the SAME age, with the SAME pay, and the SAME years of service.

    Public Sector Unions/Workers like to say that the lack of full funding is the CAUSE of the problem, conveniently ignoring that full funding requirements move in direct proportion to the pension’s “generosity”, and that a VERY generous pension will THEREFORE have VERY high full-funding requirements. The lack of full funding is not the CAUSE of the pensions mess, but a CONSEQUENCE of the true ROOT CAUSE …. grossly excessive Public Sector pension (and Benefit) “generosity”.

    And while incompetent and crooked grownups contributed to this mess, and while not the focus of “blame”, the Public Sector WORKERS are indeed the financial beneficiaries of these grossly excessive pension (and Benefit) promises …. so THAT is where Taxpayers must look to right this wrong, by materially reducing the promised pensions of all CURRENT workers (and to the extent necessary, to those already retired as well). Those deserving “blame” are the Unions/workers with their insatiably greed and to-hell-with-the-Taxpayers attitude, and our Elected Officials who affirmatively voted for these grossly excessive pensions (and Benefits) in exchange for Public Sector Union campaign contributions and election support. In any other venue, such underhanded, taxpayer-betraying deal-making would be considered bribery and racketeering.

  2. Oldgraymary says:

    My father became a Chicago policeman in 1939, retiring at age 63, after 31 years on the job. He contributed 9 percent of his salary to his pension, which he collected for 30 years, passing away at age 93. At that point in time, I believe his contribution to the fund was used up after the first three or four years and the rest of his years were funded by taxpayers. I know that some public sector pensions in Illinois allow you to retire at 80 percent of annual salary after 20 years with a nine-percent employee contribution. Some pension funds are not so generous, though, or the state would be in even worse shape than it is now. And of course, Governor Rauner is trying to do the responsible thing but there are too many people at the trough for him to get much support for his efforts to rein in spending.

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