Striking at the wrong target

By Larry Sand
April 24, 2018

Teachers should stop listening to union leaders and look at the data before striking.

In a recent op-ed, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten claimed that “teachers are standing up for their students and themselves against largely red states with weak labor laws and where governors and legislators have opted for tax cuts for the wealthy instead of investments for children.” Attempting to fire up teachers who were on strike at the time in several states (and entice teachers in other states to follow suit), she dragged in the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case, which she contends is a failing right wing ploy to “get public sector unions out of politics.” She proclaimed, “Teachers’ voices – and their votes – are powerful, and educators have parents and communities supporting them.”

Similarly, with help from The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and other MSM acolytes, strikes that have hit West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and soon to be Arizona – with more in the pipeline – have been “union-splained” as poor and noble teachers finally having taken enough from the right wing ogres who are in charge of administering these red states.

However, when one looks at the actual dollars-and-cents reality, the emotional photo of the kindly old 1st grade teacher picketing for more money “for the classroom” falls flat. Very, very flat. There are several relevant facts that teachers and all Americans – especially the taxpaying variety – need to know.

How much teachers really make 

According to researcher James Agresti, teachers are paid much more than commonly acknowledged. For the 2016–17 school year, the average salary of full-time public school teachers was $58,950 in the U.S. But this figure excludes benefits, such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions. According to the Department of Labor, benefits comprise an average of 33 percent of total compensation for public school teachers. So when benefits are included, teachers’ average annual compensation jumps to $87,854. And that amount does not include unfunded pension liabilities and certain post-employment benefits like health insurance, which are not measured by the Department of Labor.

Additionally, the unions’ claim that teachers make less money than other workers rings hollow. Private industry employees work an average of 37 percent more hours per year than public school teachers. This includes the time that teachers spend for lesson preparation, grading, coaching, and other activities. Agresti adds, “Unlike less rigorous studies, this data from the Department of Labor is based on detailed records of work hours instead of subjective estimates about how long people think they work.”

The (unnecessary) hiring boom

Researcher and economics professor Benjamin Scafidi found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers increased about 2.5 times faster than the uptick in students. Even more outrageous is the fact that the hiring of other education employees – administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc. – rose more than 7 times the increase in students. Scafidi adds that despite the staffing surge, students’ academic achievement has stagnated or even fallen over the past several decades. Scafidi also has written that instead of this wasteful spending, had non-teaching personnel growth been in line with student growth, and the teaching force had risen “only” 1.5 times as fast as student growth, our schools would have had an additional $37.2 billion to spend. He asserts that we could have  raised every public school teacher’s salary by more than $11,700 per year, given families of each child in poverty more than $2,600 in cash per child to attend the private school of his or her parents’ choice, more than doubled taxpayer funding for early childhood education, etc.

The pensions 

It’s no secret that overly generous teacher pensions are eating up money which should be spent on students. According to a recent analysis by Robert Costrell, a finance expert at the University of Arkansas, $1,301 or 10.6 percent of all education  money goes toward teacher retirement benefits. This is more than double the amount spent on pensions in 2004 when it was $520 or 4.8 percent of per pupil expenditures.

Also, as The Brookings Institution reports, “while fewer than four percent of teachers with more than 20 years’ experience leave before retirement, 13.5 percent of teachers with fewer than five years’ experience do.” This is partially due to the way we pay teachers, who automatically earn more just by showing up each fall, regardless of how effective they are. Also, pension benefits start to accrue later in a teacher’s career so that younger teachers are helping to prop up pensions for lifers. If a teacher leaves the field early on, they get no pension at all.

It would be much fairer and more cost-effective to pay teachers according to merit. By doing so, it would give many good, younger teachers substantial raises, thus inducing them to stay in the field. It would also ease the looming pension tsunami, while serving to disincentivize mediocre (or just plain incompetent) older teachers by paying them less, who would then be much more likely to leave the profession early and find another means of employment.

Healthcare benefits 

Whereas teacher pensions are administered by the state, healthcare benefits vary according to the local union contract. While some districts cut teachers’ health benefits off when Medicare kicks in, other districts are much more generous. Perhaps the posterchild for the latter is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is in financial turmoil due in part to its spiraling healthcare costs. As Reason Foundation senior policy analyst Mark Joffe recently pointed out, LAUSD provides the same generous health coverage for retirees as it does for current employees; neither group pays a premium for their insurance.

In fact, LAUSD has just released a report showing that the unfunded liability for retiree health benefits has risen to $15.2 billion, up from a reported a $13.5 billion in 2016.which translates to a $525 per student cost. Think about how much of the money spent on retirees’ health could be given to teachers as a salary raise or be used for basic classroom expenses.

The union’s take on all this? Alex Caputo-Pearl president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, wants more money in the pot and is threatening a teachers strike, and to “create a state crisis” sometime this year if the district doesn’t meet his demands.  While LAUSD may be an outlier, too many school districts are way too generous with taxpayer-funded healthcare for teachers.

Teachers all too often fall for their unions’ inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric. Facts and data are simply not on their radar. Come November, the teachers unions and their unhappy members will be taking their case to (mostly) red state voters. Let’s hope that the taxpayers can see through the teachers-as-victims scam and vote for fiscal sanity.

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.

Photo credit: WBBM 780’s Regine Schlesinger