By Joy Pullmann | The Heartland Institute
Matt Damon made headlines a few years ago when he went on an expletive-laced screed about teachers’ poor (not his word, but close) salaries. It’s personal to him because Damon’s mother is an early childhood education professor.
Let’s agree with Damon that good teachers should earn a lot. The job can be very demanding, and it is crucial to society. So what would it take to pay teachers a great salary — say, something around $90,000 a year or more? That’s actually possible, without raising taxes or adding to the great American debt mountain. Here are three major barriers to that.
High benefits for a select few. When you count benefits, teachers actually make 152 percent of what they could earn in the private sector, according to research by Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine. The main reason is simple: Government pensions pay far more than private pensions (that’s one reason they’re flat broke at $1.2 trillion in the hole), and typically encourage people to retire after only 30 years of work. But because these pensions typically kick in after teachers have been in the same job for at least five to 10 years, the 55 percent of teachers who move before then essentially get nothing, whereas teachers who manage to stay put really make bank.
Administrative bloat. School administrators also make out like bandits in government pension systems. A Missouri study found superintendents contribute 53 percent more to their pensions than a career teacher, but get pension benefits 89 percent higher. That means, as the study authors say, “Novice teachers are subsidizing a handsome payoff to better-paid administrators.”
A stunning study from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that, from 1950 to 2009, the number of nonteaching school staff in the United States increased seven times as much as the number of K-12 students. If the two had increased at the same pace, U.S. taxpayers would have saved $24 billion a year. On average, it would have provided an extra $12,314 per classroom per year. That’s not a bad pay raise.
Union pay scales. Giving in to unions’ demands, most school districts pay teachers according to two, and only two, factors: Credentials and time on the job. The more degrees and certificates a teacher gets, the more she gets paid, sometimes even if the coursework is not related to her job. And each year a teacher stays in the school district gets her a salary boost, whether she has improved or not.
Not paying according to how a particular teacher benefits her students means the best teachers are underpaid, and the extra wages they’re not getting are going to overpay the worst teachers, notes Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby. This pushes the good teachers to leave the profession because they can get better pay elsewhere, and encourages the worst teachers to stay because they’re getting much better pay than they could elsewhere.
Teacher compensation policy matters beyond mere fairness, because good teachers make a huge difference to kids and, therefore, to society and the economy. Having a teacher in the top 5 percent for just one year raises a child’s lifetime earnings by $80,000, reduces her likelihood of becoming a teen mother, and makes her more likely to go to college, according to a blockbuster study of 2.5 million children over 20 years. Having a teacher from the top 20 percent for three to four years in a row would close achievement gaps between rich and poor kids, or between whites and minorities. Such academic gains have huge economic impacts in the aggregate: “the achievement gap between the U.S. and the world’s top-performing countries can be said to be causing the equivalent of a permanent recession,” says Stanford economist Eric Hanushek.
The U.S. school system doesn’t just punish good teachers with low salaries. By refusing schools and families the freedom to reward good teachers and encourage the worst to find other employment, it also blights kids’ life prospects. That’s not just impractical — it’s shameful.