Education

The Truth About Teacher Pay

The popular perception is that teachers are underpaid, but is that widely true?

Brian Mark Weber · Sep. 21, 2018

A recent Time magazine exposé featured stories from teachers across America, many of whom are struggling to feed their families or pay their bills. One Kentucky teacher, for example, asserts that she needs to work two outside jobs and donate plasma just to make ends meet. So how much can we draw from such stories on a national level?

Not much, according to Reason’s Nick Gillespie, who says, “The Time story constitutes something akin to journalistic malpractice by suggesting that teachers such as Brown, who are pulling down salaries in the mid-50s, are being forced to sell bodily fluids to make ends meet. Indeed, according to Time’s sister publication, Money, the median household income in Kentucky is $45,215 meaning that Brown is making about $10,000 more than half of all other households in the Bluegrass State.”

We certainly have our complaints about the education system, but the vast majority of public-school teachers in this country work hard for their salaries, and their contributions to society are impossible to quantify. Of course, we can also say the same about countless other professions, including firefighters and police officers. Sure, everyone who works hard and touches the lives of others deserves to bring home a decent paycheck. But that’s the point. Contrary to popular belief, most teachers already bring home paychecks that are equal to, or above, the average salaries of other professions.

Are there school districts in which teachers make significantly less than some of their counterparts in other places? Sure. Just last year, the Brown Center of the Brookings Institution issued a report finding, “The level of overall salary inequality among public teachers is low in comparison to other occupations. In addition, teacher salaries show very little evidence of inequalities based on either race/ethnicity or gender dimensions, but show relatively high levels of wage inequality based on age (our proxy for experience), education, and geography.”

Geography, of course, is one important factor that determines how much teachers are paid. Naturally, school districts in heavily populated areas with a higher tax base or a thriving local economy receive higher salaries than teachers in rural areas.

If any teachers have a right to be upset about salaries, they’re those who teach in parochial or private schools, where salaries are significantly less than their public-school counterparts. But teachers in a small Christian school or in a college-prep school aren’t funded by taxpayers, so the market determines what they make. On the other hand, public-school teachers are funded by their local and state governments, where politicians, powerful unions, and education bureaucrats all work together to make sure teachers draw higher salaries.

It is certainly true that public-school teachers are facing cuts in salaries and benefits in some areas of the country but, again, this is due mostly to states and localities whose budgets are in the red. Even Time points out, “The fight over teacher pay has many shades of gray. Generous retirement and health-benefits packages negotiated by teachers’ unions in flusher times are a drain on many states. Those who believe most teachers are fairly paid point to those benefits, along with their summer break, to make their case.” Teacher pensions and other benefits are also typically more generous than in the private sector.

One of the problems is that teachers, supported and encouraged by unions, often demand across-the-board pay increases for all teachers, which is very expensive and simply rewards teachers for being in the education field. By taking some innovative approaches, we can pay good teachers more by creating an efficient system that more closely replicates the private sector. This includes paying teachers based on performance and moving teacher pensions to 401(k)-style retirement plans. But efficiency and government don’t go hand in hand. As long as school systems are solely government-run operations, we’re likely to see little meaningful change.

Americans naturally like to root for teachers, but the reality of teacher pay is that it’s on pace with other professions. Most teachers in this country earn every penny they make, but teachers shouldn’t expect or demand higher salaries simply because they’re teachers. That mentality may work in a profession dominated by unions and politicians — but not in the real world.

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