Americans and their political leaders claim to highly value the teachers who are the key to meeting the unrelenting demands for improved public schools. Yet they continue to deny teachers adequate compensation.
The latest evidence comes in a new survey by the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT reported that in 2005, the last year for which complete information was available, teachers were paid an average of a little more than $47,000. That was only about 2 percent more than they averaged in 2004, and well below the inflation rate of about 3 1/2 percent.
Beginning teachers averaged about $32,000 for the year, an increase of only 3 percent. And out of that, many had to pay off the thousands of dollars in student loans that got them through college. Like all other teachers, they also faced housing costs ranging up to $2,500 a month. Many teachers, whatever their length of service, could barely afford to rent apartments, much less buy homes in the communities where they worked.
All 22 of the other professions, such as engineering, accounting, computer programming and the law, that the Labor Department lists as requiring college degrees paid much better – an average of $16,000 a year better. Teachers, who must have masters degrees and who average 16 years of experience, did do better than workers generally — but only 6 percent better.
The situation hasn’t improved much over the years. After adjusting for inflation, it turns out that teachers averaged just $487 more in 2005 than they did 10 years earlier, as compared to the $4,600 increase of the average worker in private industry. The teachers’ 2005 average actually was $800 lower than their average in 2003.
Relatively low salaries are just one of the teachers’ burdens. Many must spend part of their pay for essential classroom supplies that school districts cannot or will not provide. What’s more, the health and retirement benefits that helped attract them to teaching are being steadily cut back.
It’s no wonder that most of the country’s major school districts can’t find nearly enough qualified applicants to fill their empty teaching positions. It’s no wonder that the turnover in teachers is so great, and no wonder that one of every three teachers who leave teaching within 10 years cites low pay as the reason.
The AFT says if the trends continue, as they show every sign of doing, teachers soon will be earning less than the average American worker and the gap between the pay in teaching and other professions will grow even wider.
That’s happening, mind you, at a time when parents, the general public and government officials are holding teachers accountable for the perceived failures of the educational system, and demanding that they do more – much more — than they’re already doing for less than they might make for doing something far less demanding.
“Given the difficulty many districts have attracting and keeping educators, the financial penalty for deciding to become a teacher is unacceptable,” says AFT President Edward McElroy.”If we’re serious about placing the most qualified professionals in the classroom and keeping them there, we simply need to make a significant investment in teacher salaries. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to retain teachers if we’re not even paying them enough to live near the schools where they work.”
McElroy is right. He and his fellow union officers say it’s essential that teachers’ salaries be made truly competitive with those of other professionals. They calculate that would mean raising teacher pay fully 30 percent over the next decade, to an average of roughly $61,000 a year.
The cost of about $15 billion a year would come to only about 3 percent more than what’s now budgeted for all expenses by public elementary and high schools. Or perhaps the corporate interests that rely on the schools to train their future employees could contribute some of the money they’ve saved through recent tax cuts. $15 billon, after all, would represent just a little more than 6 percent of their tax windfalls.
It’s absolutely clear, in any case, that Americans will have to start putting much more money into teacher salaries if their demands for improved schools are ever to be realized.
Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and education issues for more than four decades. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.