Teacher pay has become the topic-du-jour of late. The subject has even worked its way into the U.S. Senate, where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recently held a town hall on the “teacher pay crisis.” The strident socialist invited Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle, two national teacher union leaders, to join him for a slanted and hyperbole-riddled evening.
Just for starters, Pringle insisted that the “staffing crisis isn’t the warning light or the maintenance-required, indicator-on-your-car moment. No, this is the engine-is-on-fire, call-911-now moment that we are in.” And Weingarten absurdly claimed that “a teacher makes less than a bartender.”
The entire pearl-clutching event was simply a prelude to the “Pay Teachers Act,” which will, among other things, “ensure all starting teachers across the country are paid at least $60,000 a year. It will increase wages for teachers who have made teaching their profession – working on the job for, 10, 20, 30 years,” and would cost taxpayers some $450 billion over the next ten years.
What do teachers actually earn?
According to Just Facts, in the 2020–21 school year, the average school teacher in the U.S. made $65,090 in salary, and received another $33,048 in benefits (such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions) for $98,138 in total compensation.
Also, importantly, full-time public school teachers work an average of 1,490 hours per year, including time spent on lesson preparation, test construction, and grading, providing extra help to students, coaching, and other activities, while their counterparts in private industry work an average of 2,045 hours per year, or about 37% more than public school teachers.
In the same vein, an earlier study by researchers Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine showed that when healthcare and pension packages are included, teachers are paid more than other workers. They found that workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs “receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.”
One way teachers could command greater salaries is if the education establishment stopped hiring employees. Researcher and economics professor Benjamin Scafidi found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers increased about 2.5 times as fast as the uptick in students. But even more outrageous is the fact that other education employees – administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc. – rose more than 7 times the increase in students. Scafidi added that despite the staffing surge, students’ academic achievement has stagnated or even fallen over the past several decades. According to the latest data from 2019, Scafidi’s numbers are still accurate. As Heritage Foundation scholar Lindsay Burke notes, in public schools across America today, “teachers make up just half of all education jobs.”
Most recently, Chad Aldeman, Policy Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, reported that schools have been adding teachers even as they serve fewer students. He explains that between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022, public school enrollment is down 2.6%, but at the same time there has been a 1.1% increase in teachers.
A legitimate teacher salary issue is the way we pay teachers. Whereas private sector employees are paid via merit, teachers are part of an industrial style “step and column” salary regimen, which treats them as interchangeable widgets. They get salary increases for the number of years they work, and for taking (frequently meaningless) professional development classes. Great teachers are worth more – a lot more – and should receive higher pay than their less capable colleagues. But they don’t. Also, if a district is short on science teachers, it’s only logical to pay them more than other teachers whose fields are overpopulated. But, of course, stifling union contracts don’t allow for this kind of flexibility.
Barbara Biasi, an assistant Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management, has studied teacher salaries. She focused on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 in 2011, which all but eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and created a marketplace where school districts could compete for better educators by paying valued teachers more. Among Biasi’s findings is that there’s 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.” In fact, about half of Wisconsin’s school districts abandoned their lock-step salary schedules to the teachers unions’ great chagrin and began to pay teachers for performance, for having advanced math and science skills, taking difficult assignments, etc.
If Sanders and the union honchos are serious about raising teacher pay, they should embrace school choice. In fact, there have been six studies that explore how parental choice affects teacher pay, and five show a positive effect, while one shows an “ambiguous effect.”
Yes, competition works. But if you are a socialist or a competition-phobic teacher union leader, an educational free market is your worst nightmare.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) chair of the education committee, isn’t having any of the “Pay Teachers Act.” She stated that “the federal government should not determine the salary for every teacher in the country. A top-down approach fails to improve school and student success.”
Austin Reid, senior legislative director for state and federal affairs at the National Conference of State Legislatures, adds, “It would potentially give the federal government substantial leverage over school personnel policy and decisions.”
Foxx and Reid are correct. As long as the government is involved in schooling, educational decisions on salaries should come from individual states and local school districts. And, in fact, that is starting to happen.
In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has proposed raising minimum teacher salaries to $50,000 a year. But she also wants to do away with the step-and-column salary schedule. Her bill also creates, “Educational Freedom Accounts,” which would give parents the choice of where they send their kids to school.
While Carol Fleming, the state teacher union president in Arkansas likes the pay hike, she tellingly laments that the bill “puts the onus of a quality education on parents and they shouldn’t have to think twice about the education their children are receiving.”
Onus on parents? Since children belong to their parents, isn’t that exactly where said onus should be?
In Arizona, there is a proposed bill that would raise teacher base pay by $10,000 starting in 2025. Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, is unhappy, complaining that the pay raise doesn’t include any extra money for support staff, like bus drivers and aides, Also, the Center Square reports that the bill would only take effect if another bill that strengthens teacher evaluations is enacted.
Additionally, Republican Govs. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Florida’s Ron DeSantis have led efforts to secure teacher raises.
In any event, Congress must kill the “Pay Teachers Act.”
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.