When the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in July 2015, many teachers were infuriated. The union’s Bernie Sanders supporters justifiably believed they had no role in the decision, which was made a full year before the Democratic National Convention. AFT president Randi Weingarten recently admitted the union would have to overcome some “trust issues” in the wake of that early endorsement, although she took no responsibility for her role in fostering distrust among her members, laughably suggesting that “Russian bots” and the “Bernie camp” could be to blame.
To secure the union’s endorsement this time around, a candidate will be scrutinized thoroughly on policies the union holds dear, including universal healthcare, free college tuition, and killing off charter schools.
Shortly after AFT opened the door to all aspirants in mid-March, candidate Kamala Harris swaggered in with an eye-catching and indeed audacious plan. In the March 25 edition of the Washington Post, the junior senator from California declared: “The United States is facing a teacher pay crisis. Public school teachers earn 11 percent less than professionals with similar educations.” To address the situation, which Harris insists is “creating disastrous consequences,” she wants to give the average teacher a $13,500 raise with states being forced to add $1 to the pot for every $3 the feds throw in.
The extravagant plan would cost taxpayers about $315 billion over the next decade, and that does not include the state “contribution.” Harris claims the money would come from closing loopholes that one-percenters take advantage of.
Needless to say, Randi Weingarten was full of praise. She called the plan “a bold, smart, strategic and decisive proposal that will help make teaching a respected profession by paying teachers a living wage.” The plan could also be popular with voters, as surveys often show that a majority of Americans think educators are underpaid. For example, a recent PDK poll revealed that 66 percent of Americans think that teachers’ salaries in their community are too low.
The Harris plan was likely influenced by a 2018 Center for American Progress report that maintains “teachers earn 60 percent of the average salaries of similarly educated full-time professionals.” The far-left policy organization suggested Congress offer a $10,000 tax credit to teachers.
The selling points for Kamala Harris, Randi Weingarten, the Center of American Progress, and other half-truthers all center on the idea that teachers are professionals, and should make as much as other professionals. But that sales pitch is full of holes. Craters, in fact.
Yes, teachers do make less than some other professionals, but there are valid reasons for that.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers work on average 1,398 hours per year, whereas accountants work 2,074 hours per year, almost 50 percent more than teachers. Lawyers (2,036 hours per year) and dentists (1,998 hours per year) also work many more hours than teachers.
The half-truthers also conveniently omit the valuable perks that teachers receive. Andrew Biggs, American Enterprise Institute researcher, and Jason Richwine, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, released a study in 2011 in which they found that teachers are actually overpaid. Unlike other studies, theirs includes the benefits that teachers typically receive as part of their compensation package, like excellent healthcare and pension packages that aren’t counted as “income.” They find 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.”
In a similar vein, researcher James Agresti writes that teachers are paid much more than is commonly acknowledged. For the 2016-17 school year, the average salary of full-time public school teachers was $58,950 in the United States But this figure excludes benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions. According to the Department of Labor, such perks comprise an average of 33 percent of total compensation for public school teachers. Once those are added in, teachers’ average annual compensation jumps to $87,854.
And even that amount does not include unfunded pension liabilities and certain post-employment benefits like health insurance, which are not measured by the Department of Labor. In Los Angeles, not only are retired teachers covered for life, so are their spouses and children up to age 26. Rest assured, many of the 66 percent of Americans polled by PDK who think teachers are underpaid are unaware of what teachers actually bring in.
Even considering teachers “professionals,” as Harris and others do, is dubious. Unlike other professions, educators are rarely paid by merit. Typically, teachers’ salaries are dictated by the step-and-column method, whereby—no matter how talented they may be—their salaries are calculated primarily by their numbers of years on the job. They can also increase their incomes by taking “professional development” classes. Conclusive research by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek and others shows that these classes have zero effect on student learning. This ends up being nothing more than a way to game the system and further soak the taxpayer. In fact, a merit pay-based system would attract better quality educators, which we desperately need.
Also, doctors, lawyers and other professionals don’t have organizations that protect incompetents. The industrial-style labor unions see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their antiquated work rules like tenure and seniority—perennial union mainstays.
Come what may, the politicians and teacher union leaders will continue to hawk their snake oil, and the myth of the impoverished teacher will live on. Candidate Beto O’Rourke recently jumped into the pay fray, telling a crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire, “We want to guarantee that no school teacher works a second or a third job.”
Bernie Sanders is sure to weigh in. Trumping the Harris plan won’t be easy, but if anyone can do it, the avowed socialist from Vermont can. American taxpayers—at least those whose eyes are open—are anything but jubilant at the thought.
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