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Teachers: Paying for their Value

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
If this is true, why are teachers paid so poorly?

Just about two weeks ago when Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) addressed a town meeting in Myrtle Beach, SC, she said one of her goals as president would be to close the teacher pay gap, which is the difference between what teachers are paid compared to other professionals with similar education.

"In America, we believe in our teachers," said Harris, adding that they must be paid according to their value to society. The packed convention hall conference room erupted in a sustained cheer.

"I am prepared to put in place a federal investment in closing the teacher pay gap," she declared, "which in South Carolina is $9,300 per year."

Faced with a vocal outcry from teachers in the Palmetto State last year, the state legislature voted to raise starting teachers' salaries from $32,000 to $35,000 per year as part of a $159 million investment to improve teachers' pay. But those salaries are still paltry when compared to the value that they bring every day to our society.

Harris asked teachers in the audience how many had to work more than one job to make ends meet. Many raised their hands, and one teacher, also a mom, said she has four jobs because her teacher salary is so low that she has no choice.

"That is wrong," said Harris. "I strongly believe that you should judge a society according to how it treats its children," she said, stressing that providing a good education by supporting teachers is a critical part of that.

The problem of low teacher salaries has made headlines over the last two years, as educators have become more vocal, especially when considering the high expectations placed on them and the importance of their work in both educating our children and helping to guide them towards success.

There have been walkouts and protests, rallies at state capitols and even strike in nearly a dozen jurisdictions to demand higher pay, smaller class sizes and increased state investment in their K-12 systems.

Though the average teacher salary has increased by 11.5 percent over the last decade, when taking inflation into account, it actually has decreased by 4.5%, according to the National Education Association.

Last September the Economic Policy Institute reported that:

  • Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $27 from 1996 to 2017, from $1,164 to $1,137 (in 2017 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,339 to $1,476 over this period.

  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression-adjusted for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. The teacher wage penalty was 1.8 percent in 1994, grew to 4.3 percent in 1996, and reached a record 18.7 percent in 2017.

  • In 2017, female public school teachers were making 15.6 percent less in wages than comparable female workers.

  • In 2017, male public school teachers were making 26.8 percent less in wages than comparable male workers.

  • Improvements in benefits relative to professionals have not been enough to offset the growing teacher wage penalty

"Providing teachers with a decent middle-class living commensurate with other professionals with similar education is not simply a matter of fairness. Effective teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student educational performance," the EPI report said.

"To ensure a high-quality teaching workforce, schools must retain experienced teachers and recruit high-quality students into the profession. Pay is an important component of retention and recruitment."

Of course it is.

There is something wrong in a society that says it's OK to pay contracts the hundreds of millions of dollars to baseball players who can hit home runs or football players who can throw touchdowns, but objects to paying the taxes needed to support even a living wage for those men and women entrusted with the future of our children.

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