NPR Ignores the Real Problem of Uber-driving School Teacher

National Public Radio’s Sunday morning story last month was a failure of basic journalism. “In Silicon Valley, Where a Teacher Works for Uber to Stay Middle-Class” features Matthew Barry, a high school economics teacher in California’s Morgan Hill Unified School District (MHUSD). He says his $69,000 annual salary is so insufficient to his surroundings in the magically affluent Silicon Valley that he’s had to take a second job – as an Uber driver.

“It doesn’t necessarily work out financially ’cause it’s really, you know, it’s not the greatest level of income,” Barry told NPR.

He says his passengers are often surprised to learn he’s a teacher. And he feels some guilt – and evinces a little resentment, maybe – that he’s not making it. “I’d rather be a full-time teacher and that be enough,” he says. “But in the current housing market, it’s really not.”

NPR reporter Rachel Martin says Barry’s wife is also a teacher – we found that she earned about $79,000 in 2014. But Martin never explores why Barry’s income doesn’t match his surroundings, where the median priced home runs $800,000. The answer is left to our imagination, which suggests that teachers simply aren’t paid enough.

Our imagination might be wrong. For the real forces that shape Barry’s work experience, we have to look more broadly at the teachers union contract governing his job at Live Oak High School.

Like most school district labor contracts, MHUSD’s with the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers determines salaries primarily by seniority, credentials, and degrees. In their first 11 years, Morgan Hill teachers are guaranteed increases almost every year. On top of that annual bump, teachers receive additional pay raises – the most recent contract gave every Morgan Hill teacher a 5% increase over the course of a 2015-18 deal.

Barry is a newish teacher, just nine years in; his big payoff won’t come until much later.

According to Transparent California, Live Oak High School’s principal Lloyd Webb pulled around $153,000 in 2014. Assistant principals Natalie Gioco and Aurelia Yabrudy earned roughly $127,000 and $123,000 that same year. Even custodian Guy Betancourt earned $67,000.

Then there are the retirees. In MHUSD, hefty pensions and retirement packages are abundant. Joseph Totter, former MHUSD Assistant Superintendent, received a $169,000 pension in 2015. In fact, 80 former MHUSD employees earned pensions that surpass Barry’s current pay.

Morgan Hill isn’t unique. Throughout California – across the nation – teachers unions have locked in lower pay for new teachers. If cuts should come, most districts pink-slip new teachers rather than older teachers, the notorious “Last-In, First-Out” system.

Over time, Barry’s salary will increase, but increases won’t be linked to his classroom performance. And they won’t be linked to the relative scarcity of his subject-area expertise. He’ll get increases for staying on the job, and occasionally for taking college courses toward a degree that might – or might not – improve his teaching.

We tried to get a comment from Barry, but he didn’t respond to our several requests. We may have been among the few reporters to whom he didn’t speak. In a matter of weeks, his story was all over, giving his struggle the feel of a media campaign. It was referenced on Real Clear Politics and on the pro-union Capital and Main website. The lefty Nation magazine featured Barry’s dilemma in a pointed feature titled, “Teachers Are Working for Uber Just to Keep a Foothold in the Middle Class.” That yarn didn’t address the problem of union contracts, either. Nor did it reveal much that we didn’t find elsewhere – except this: Barry’s days as an Uber driver are apparently in the rearview mirror. He’s participating in another disruptive force in the new sharing economy: he and his wife reportedly rented their house to golf caddies for the U.S. Women’s Open.

Catrin Thorman is a California Policy Center Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons.

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