Another day, another teachers-are-underpaid report

The Economic Policy Institute updates its 2004 report on teacher pay and then some in The Teaching Penalty: Teacher Pay Losing Ground. The institute finds that the pay of public school teachers is 15 percent lower than that of comparable professionals and that, over time, teacher pay has grown at a slower rate than inflation or the pay of similar workers. The report concludes that any attempt to alter the recruitment-and-retention patterns in teaching must start with increasing teacher wages across the board but fails to address important non-wage variables that affect the teacher-pay equation.

The book's authors name accountants, reporters, registered nurses, computer programmers, clergy, and personnel officers as teachers' professional peers, given the skill level and education required for the jobs. However, they do not acknowledge that most of these "comparable" professionals work outside the bounds of public employment and collective-bargaining agreements where pay is linked not only to an employee's credentials and seniority but also to job performance, and where poor performers aren't likely to stay on the job for long.

The Teaching Penalty continues the fruitless argument that teachers devote more time to work outside their contracted schedules than do other professionals. To justify dividing a teacher's annual pay by a full year of work instead of actual contracted weeks, and thus lowering the teacher's average weekly earnings, the authors assert that teachers often spend some of their summer breaks attending "professional development or other activities expected of a professional teacher."

In practice, though, public school teachers do not generally take part in unpaid professional development at all, let alone in June, July, and August. In fact, a recent Fordham analysis found that teacher-union contracts in 28 of the country's 50-largest school districts specifically require that teachers be paid for professional activities, including professional seminars and conferences, that take place outside of the regular school day (see here).

The authors also make the case that teachers' non-wage benefit packages are not so much better than those of other professionals that they should offset teachers' lower salaries. Yet they do not consider one of the biggest unpaid "perks" in the teaching profession: retiring young. Ohio's teacher pension system-and many of its counterparts across the country-encourages teachers to leave the profession after 30 or 35 years, in their mid-to late 50s (see here). Surely there is some value to being able to retire comfortably some 10 years earlier than your friends and neighbors.

Depending on which numbers you crunch, The Teaching Penalty's key findings might well hold true, but any conversation about increasing teacher pay is futile unless it also addresses collective bargaining rights, pension systems, and other non-wage benefits. Read the book here.

Emmy L. Partin
Emmy L. Partin is a Director of Ohio Policy & Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute