The Straw Man of Teacher Pay

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I saw a post on Facebook, and later an email, with a title about how overpaid teachers are. The post went on to show mathematically that teachers are not overpaid by any reasonable measurement. Teachers and their unions would certainly appreciate the logic in their favor but the real value that I found in the post was not simply the numbers presented but the example that the post provides of using numbers to keep the debate uninformed. While it showed very convincingly that teachers are not overpaid (either literally or in relation to the service they provide) it masked the complexity of the issue by ignoring the crucial questions of how much we spend on education (it’s much more than teacher pay), whether we can afford the cost (whether or not the cost is a bargain), and what other alternatives we could explore to address the real issue (which is how we make sure that our children have a decent education available to them).

First let me list a few numbers (and their sources) that I would like to use in illustrating what was unsaid in the other post. I would like to thank Becky Edwards for helping me obtain the current numbers for the state of Utah that I am using. (Becky is currently the Representative for House District 20 in Utah and a member of the House Education Committee.)

  • The post compared teaching to babysitting and, using that assumption, concluded that parents should be perfectly happy to pay $20 per day for 6.5 hours of babysitting for each of their school aged children. Using that $20/day figure they calculated that teachers would be making over $100K per year. I don’t expect to use that $100K figure but wanted to include it here to briefly illustrate the conclusion of the original post.
  • The post also claimed that the average teacher salary was only $50K per year. I will be using that number because it seems reasonable and convenient but would like to state that I have made no attempt to independently verify its accuracy or its source.
  • The state of Utah currently spends $3.34 Billion on elementary education per year.
  • The state of Utah currently employs 32,473 elementary school teachers. (As far as I can tell that does not count administrators and other staff.)

It is easy to see that teachers salaries are only a part of what we spend on education. Multiply 32,473 by $50K and we get $1.62 Billion or 48.6% of our education budget. The other 51.4% goes to other education costs. Note that none of this education budget even includes the various book fairs, walk-a-thons, and other fundraisers that schools are perpetually engaging in. If the issue were simply a matter of teachers salaries we could easily pay them more. The fact is that less than half of our education cost is teacher salaries. Whoever originally wrote the document was probably thinking of all the fuss in Wisconsin where the Governor and the Republican members of their legislature are pushing legislation that would take away the collective bargaining rights of teachers for things other than salary – that should give us a clue that the real problem is not teachers with exorbitant salaries but rather unsustainable long-term benefits such as pension and health care costs.

I recently read an article about how dire the fiscal situations of state and local governments are in this regard (of course that is more than teacher salaries or even education) and the obstacles that stand in the way of fixing the structural problems that prevent something as simple as a salary cut or a tax increase from solving the issue:

. . . in most places, state legislators are overmatched by savvy public-employees’ unions and by pension-fund managers wedded to the status quo. Their influence explains why, though 18 states enacted some sort of pension reform in 2010, very few will offer real, long-term relief to taxpayers.

I feel very fortunate that my own State Senator, Dan Liljenquist, had the position and expertise to make sure that Utah is one place where we have enacted reforms that effectively address those structural imbalances. (To learn more about Dan and his efforts to make sure that Utah has a sustainable fiscal future read the article or visit his website.)

I also recently talked to a friend of mine who is a Democrat and a public school employee. I thought it was very telling to hear him bring up the subject of what was happening in Wisconsin and express his hope that the governor and the Republicans there would be able to win this fight and break the teachers union. His perspective was that unions only effectively protect the incompetent educators. He contends that the educators who are good at what they do are hampered by the fact that unions make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective educators or to pay effective educators based on their merit. While he believes, as I do, that there was a time when unions were a necessary tool to ensure that owners of various industries did not exploit their workers the fact is that the unions of today are more often the bullies. The contracts that teachers unions negotiate burden taxpayers with costly benefit packages while taking their dues out of the anything-but-excessive salaries of teachers and then they cry foul when taxpayers suggest that they should not pay part of teachers’ salaries when those teachers are spending their time on union activities rather than classroom activities.

The conversation with my friend illustrated the wide variety of alternatives that need to be considered in order to address the education issue. Simply throwing more money at the issue will not solve it. We need to look at ideas like merit pay, year-round school, reduced class sizes, increased parental involvement, etc. Some of those ideas seem promising to me, others seem neutral or even counterproductive. One idea I have not heard suggested anywhere that sounds very promising to me is grade clustering. Having a teacher teach, for example, three grades would allow for much more continuity in the education of each student. If the teacher still had a class size of thirty they would only have ten new students in one year that they would have to get to know and they would have more flexibility to have students work with older or younger peers based on their shared personal ability-levels. This would also allow parents to work with a single teacher for an extended period of time so that they could collaborate more effectively rather than working with a virtual stranger for the entire school experience of at least their first child. To buy into this we would have to accept the fact that teachers are not interchangeable automatons where there is little overhead involved in switching teachers every single year throughout a student’s academic career.

The $3.34 Billion Utah spends on education represent a substantial part of the roughly $12 Billion state budget – a budget that must also go to pay for so many other services that we collectively expect our government to provide such as higher education and various types of public safety and welfare services. Anyone who says that we should devote more money to education should make sure to offer some examples of where the state should get more revenue or what state services should have their budgets reduced to free up the money they want to give to education. It is also perfectly fair to ask whether there are areas in the $1.72 Billion in education spending that does not go to teacher salaries that is wasted. Do we pay administrators too much or employ too many administrators? Are we using our physical resources effectively?

Regardless of what side of the debate someone is on, it does no good for anyone to hold up the Teachers’ Salary straw man and proceed to beat their opponent in effigy.