The endless teacher salary lies

By Larry Sand
September 25, 2018

Using the “pay penalty” canard, the education establishment enflames teacher anger and accords them victim status.

“‘I Work 3 Jobs and Donate Blood Plasma to Pay the Bills.’ This Is What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in America” begs for your sympathy. Then, of course, you are supposed to get righteously angry! But looking about a centimeter below the surface you discover that the Time Magazine cover story rings hollow. Or as Reason’s Nick Gillespie writes, “The polite term for this sort of journalism is b.s.” So before reaching for a hankie, please keep in mind the following….

Hope Brown, the featured Kentucky teacher, makes about $55,000 a year, just under the $58,950 national average salary for public school teachers. We can also tack on about another 25 to 33 percent to her pay for health and pension benefits. Also worth noting, the average Kentuckian makes about $45,000 a year, so most Bluegrass Staters are not as well off as she is. Moreover, 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, etc.

The Time story comes on the heels of “The teacher pay penalty has hit a new high,” a report by the Economic Policy Institute, whose board includes union honchos Richard Trumka, Lee Saunders and Randi Weingarten. EPI concludes that there is a “crisis in teacher pay.” And just what is the reason for the alleged crisis? In two words: lower taxes. The National Education Association narrows down the blame to “deep tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.”

To paraphrase Mr. Gillespie, this is a big fat crock. Teachers would be much better off recognizing – and acknowledging – the real reason they don’t earn more than they do – and it’s not the fault of red state leaders or taxpayers. The blame lies with the Big Government-Big Union duopoly.

Researcher Benjamin Scafidi found that between 1950 and 2015, the hiring of non-teacher education employees in government run schools – administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc. – rose more than 7 times the increase in students. All the while, students’ academic achievement has stagnated or even fallen over the past several decades. Scafidi writes that absent this mostly wasteful expenditure, our schools would have had an additional $37.2 billion to spend. He asserts that we could raise every public school teacher’s salary by more than $11,700 per year.

In a recent op-ed, EdChoice president Robert Enlow suggests that Indiana teachers could bring in another $25,000 a year if districts kept their non-teacher hiring in line with student growth. He writes that from 1994-2014, Hoosier schools increased teaching staff just 4 percent, but non-teaching staff – administrators, curriculum specialists, social workers, etc. – grew 53 percent.

To find a real “teacher pay penalty,” one needs to go no further than the quality-blind, step-and-column method of paying educators – a teacher union contract staple. That industrial-style system has always hurt teachers, especially the good and great ones. Fact is, only 23 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top third of college graduates, and the inability to escape the step-and-column straitjacket is part of the problem. A starting teacher in Los Angeles makes about $50,000 a year, while a rookie lawyer can make three times that.

Barbara Biasi, a fellow in Industrial Relations at Princeton University, has studied the step-and-column regimen. She focused on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10, instituted in 2011, which created a marketplace for teachers where public school districts compete for better educators. For instance, a district can pay more to recruit and retain “‘high-value added’ teachers – that is, those who most improve student learning. Districts can also cap salaries of low-performing teachers, which might encourage them to quit or leave for other districts.” Among Biasi’s findings is that there is a “34 percent increase in the quality of teachers moving from salary-schedule to individual-salary districts, and a 17 percent decrease in the quality of teachers exiting individual-salary districts.” Yes, good teachers can benefit financially without the shackles of a union contract.

Also, competitive school choice programs help to do away with the “penalty.” Writing in the Washington Examiner in August, Cory DeAngelis, education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, reports that of six studies on the subject, five show that where there is competition with private and charter schools, public school teachers salaries increase, while one study shows no effect.

So, the first step to increase teacher pay is to minimize government and union meddling, and give the free market a chance to work. But don’t expect to hear that from Time Magazine, EPI, the teachers unions, or any other education establishmentarian, all of whom prosper by promoting the teacher-as-victim narrative. Instead, their strategy is to point fingers at taxpayers and corporate greed which, sadly, works all too often.

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.