The singular concern of teachers unions is the welfare of their dues-paying members. As a matter of public policy, my concern is quality education in the best interests of students, parents and taxpayers. Most teachers, their unions, and some parents assert as indisputable fact, that teachers are underpaid and that many in less “important” jobs, like professional athletes, are overpaid. They’re dismayed that football players get millions while teachers get a mere pittance.
First of all, teachers make a lot more than a pittance. Their compensation is a joint function of market forces and representative government. There are 3 million full-time K-12 teachers and tens of millions of Americans who have the ability to do that job if they chose to. A market-clearing price equilibrates supply and demand in determining compensation for any job. If there’s a shortage of teachers, government schools must pay that price to attract and retain employees. Since taxpayers ultimately get the bill, the process is filtered through their elected representatives, who’d have to persuade them to pay it.
Regarding football players, on the entire planet, there are fewer than 2,000 individuals who can make the cut for the 32 teams of the NFL. And just a relative handful with the skills to play quarterback at the highest level, commanding extraordinary pay. Teams pay individual players based on their “value added”: the expectation of how much revenue they’ll generate in excess of their compensation. Similar factors apply to elite actors, rock stars, media personalities and others paid multiple millions of dollars.
As for job “importance,” that’s highly subjective and debatable. Religion is important, but CEOs and even plumbers make more than priests. The president of the United States is paid just $400,000, despite the job’s importance. Soldiers aren’t just important, they’re essential for national security but they’re paid less than teachers and put in many more hours in a job that’s extremely hazardous.
Teacher pay is specified in a salary grid based on years of service and post-graduate degree credits. In the 2022-2023 school year, the starting salary in Denver Public Schools, for example, ranges from $50,130 to $67,009. For teachers with 20 years of service, the range is $81,889 to $109,022. But this greatly understates total compensation if it doesn’t include their gold-plated PERA retirement benefit. Teachers who now retire after 40 years of service get an annual pension of 100% of their highest average salary (calculated over a 3-year period), adjusted for future inflation. This is far more generous than Social Security and private-sector 401(k) defined contribution plans. Over and above teacher pay, school districts contribute another 21.4% of payroll to fund PERA. Without PERA, if teachers had 401(k)’s and Social Security, instead, their salaries could be much higher.
Another complaint is that teachers are paid less than those with other degrees. But all degrees aren’t equally valuable or demanding. After college, doctors spend 4 years in medical school and 3-7 years in hospital residency. Lawyers spend 3 years in law school and must pass a rigorous bar exam. Getting an education degree at a teachers college isn’t very hard and has limited market value to other employers.
Teachers work only 9 months a year. (It’s been said the two best reasons to go into teaching are June and July.) They have excellent health insurance, solid job security, and are almost impossible to fire for poor performance. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals are compensated based on their individual performance. Teachers are paid collectively according to the salary schedule negotiated by their unions. This is the way assembly line workers are paid. But teachers regard themselves as professionals. Compensation based on individual merit would pay the best teachers more. The worst ones wouldn’t like that and the union would never allow it.
It may be difficult for teachers just out of college to make ends meet on the starting salary, but they can do what many other young workers do: share an apartment with roommates (like Jennifer Anniston and the cast of “Friends”). Most teachers will later be married and financially comfortable in two-income families.
Higher teacher pay won’t improve the abysmal performance of public schools. The political power of teachers unions and their progressive enablers on school boards and in government have corrupted the system beyond reform. The solution is to empower parents with school choice, shifting a share of school funding to vouchers for private schools. That way, students can escape mediocrity and political indoctrination when their parents select the educational model they deem best for their kids.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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