You hear it all the time. Teachers are underpaid. There is a teacher pay penalty. Teachers are the lowest paid of all the professions. Recently, the National Education Association issued a report claiming, “Teacher Salaries Not Keeping Up With Inflation.” The Guardian asserts that teachers “can’t afford rent.”
The feds may soon be joining the party. America’s shrill socialist Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has introduced the Pay Teachers Act, a gambit that would cost taxpayers $450 billion over 10 years. If passed, Title I funding would be tripled by “increasing estate taxes on the wealthiest Americans.” Under this money grab, states would be eligible, with federal help, to raise teacher salaries to $60,000 a year.
On a local level, New York City educators are getting a big pay hike and bonuses of up to 20% under a five-year, $6.4 billion labor contract announced in June by Mayor Eric Adams and the United Federation of Teachers. Under the new deal, the top salaries for the longest-serving teachers will exceed $150,000.
Not to be outdone, California is seeking to boost teacher salaries by 50% by 2030. Al Muratsuchi (D-Los Angeles), the author of AB 938, maintains that many teachers and school employees are “unable to afford to live in the communities they work in. Moreover, there is a growing wage gap between teachers and comparable college graduates in other fields.”
And now for a much-needed reality check. In the 2020–21 school year, the average U.S. school teacher made $65,090 yearly in salary and received another $33,048 in benefits (health insurance, paid leave, and pensions) for a total compensation of $98,138, according to Just Facts.
Also, 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 private industry employees work an average of 2,045 hours per year, or about 37% more than public school teachers.
There are, however, several ways for teachers to earn more without whacking the already beleaguered taxpayer. Notably, pensions for teachers should be revamped.
Teachers and other education workers typically participate in defined benefit 403(b) pension plans. In this arrangement, while pensions are funded to some extent by the workers themselves, the bulk of the payment is supplied by the school district – therefore the taxpayer – and the local and state government – i.e., the taxpayer. The teacher, upon retiring, receives a fixed monthly amount for life, no matter how much he or she has actually contributed to the plan.
But as Cory Koedel, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Missouri, explains, this hurts teachers too. Focusing on California, he writes that “labor costs for districts are going up rapidly due to pension and health-benefit costs. Because these benefit cost increases do not correspond to rising benefits for current teachers—they reflect legacy costs—they are creating a larger and larger wedge between what teachers today take home in terms of wages and benefits, and school districts’ personnel costs.”
Koedel goes on to say that there would be more resources available for salary increases for teachers if benefit costs were lower.
Another way for teachers to be paid more without a tax hike would be to reduce the number of administrators. Rick Hess, a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writes that if the ranks of 400,000 school and district administrators were trimmed by 20 percent, it would “put the administrative body count back where it was during the Obama presidency, with administrative ranks still 25 percent larger than in 2000. Use the savings to fund 12-month lead teacher positions for one in six teachers, with salary and leave bumped accordingly. Teachers could grow professionally and assume a larger role in training, curriculum development or parent engagement without having to leave the classroom.”
Hess asserts that such an action would result in an average teacher salary of $84,000.
Additionally, teacher pay would rise if class size was increased. Fewer teachers translate to more money for those who still teach. Nationally, class size has been shrinking over time. Since 1921, the student-to-teacher ratio has been reduced from 33:1 to 16:1. An extensive analysis of the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement and found that 15% of the studies did show an improvement in achievement, while 72% found no effect at all, and 13% found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement.
Yet another way to raise (some) teachers’ salaries is through differentiated pay. Paying some teachers higher salaries because they are more effective or raising salaries for teachers who are willing to work at tougher-to-staff schools should be options.
Also, teachers’ salaries increase where school choice has been implemented. Out of six studies on the subject going back to 1994, one finds an ambiguous effect, while the remaining five find a small positive effect. Even for teachers who remain in the traditional public school system, school choice increases compensation.
But school choice, differentiated pay, and all the other potential fixes are for the teachers unions what the crucifix was to Dracula.
Regarding differentiated pay, the California Teachers Association has codified its opposition to it in its policy handbook. The union insists on a “single salary schedule” that pays all teachers at all schools the same wages based on their experience and education levels. “The model is widely accepted because it is seen as less arbitrary, clearer and more predictable,” the handbook states. “Because of these factors, the single salary schedule will continue to be the foundation of educators’ pay.”
To sum up, anything that would actually turn teachers into independent professionals is ixnay for the teachers unions, which insist on treating educators as dues-paying widgets. Until we eliminate or severely curtail the power of those unions, any meaningful change will be very hard to come by.
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.