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Paying the People Who Teach Our Children

Teachers play a crucial role in American society. For most of our children’s education about science, mathematics, history, government, literature and the arts and even a venue for athletics and social interaction, we depend upon our schools, and at the heart of our schools are the teachers. Watching my children, grandchildren, and now my nieces and nephews go through the public school system, both its mainstream and its special programs, I have mostly been impressed with the quality of the experience and especially the quality and dedication of the teachers. As part of all of these children’s family or extended family, I realize how much I have relied upon teachers to teach all of these family members the things they need to know to thrive in our society. It is not an overstatement to say that our children's teachers are the most important influences on their lives second to family.

The public education system is the best bargain we get in our society, but it is in jeopardy. For the most part, the quality of the education your children are going to receive is dependent upon where you live. Local funding, state funding, neighborhood culture including safety, and donations by parents determine the quality of the education a child receives. America ranks relatively high in most surveys of per pupil expenditures for elementary and secondary education among developed countries—anywhere from second to fifth. Teacher salaries rank nearly the same. However, according to a National Center for Education Studies, in 2016, salaries of 25-29 year old graduates with bachelor’s in education or elementary education were paid less (around 40,000 per year) than 22-26 of the 32 fields of study surveyed, about 8,000/year or 17% below the median, despite their unemployment rate of 2.1% being the lowest, except for nursing, of all the fields. Teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures vary widely across the United States because of education funding being dependent primarily upon local sources, and in Los Angeles, salaries for new teachers (including benefits) are closer to $55,000 per year, about a third higher than the national average. The cost of living in Los Angeles exceeds the national average by almost 50%.

Teachers are exceedingly important for the well-being of our society and their low unemployment numbers suggest that they are in high demand. Their salaries don’t reflect this, and, in Southern California, where the cost of living is very high, they are, by most standards, underpaid. In addition, as numerous teachers and any parent can attest to, teachers spend long hours both in and out of the classroom doing their jobs, paying for many of their classroom supplies, and many offer after and before school help to their students for no extra pay. 

School districts have many sources of funds, most of which are based on average daily attendance, so the number of students is a strong determiner of how much and where the money for education goes. This has led to the argument that charter schools, which have burgeoned from 10 in LA in 2000-2001 to 228 in 2016-2017, are robbing our traditional public schools of funding. Charter schools are public schools, supported by public education funds, are free to their students, but are less regulated and usually not unionized in terms of their staff. Charter schools are not the same as voucher programs, which allow families to choose schools, even private schools, and often remove funds completely from the public school system and put in in the private sector.

Most unionized teachers and many of us who support unions in general and traditional public schools as the backbone of our public educational system, tend to be opposed to the growth of charter schools because of their competition for funds with traditional public schools. Many people also argue that they provide a deficient educational experience, compared to traditional public schools, primarily because they follow fewer regulations. It turns out that this is mostly wrong. The gold standard Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which uses charter school and traditional public school students matched on relevant variables, in both national, state and local studies, has consistently shown that charter schools outperform traditional public schools (TPS), especially for some types of students. CREDO produced a report in 2014 on Los Angeles Public Schools, comparing student achievement to matched students in traditional public schools  (TPS).

The CREDO study results were striking. Students enrolled in charter schools showed statistically significant growth beyond their TPS matched controls in and this was true of every type of student (White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, in poverty, English language learners) except those who had a history of being retained or were special education students. White, Asian and English language learner children in charter schools exceeded their TPS counterparts only in reading and not in math, while Black and Hispanic students whether or not in poverty, exceeded those in TPS in both reading and math.  The positive gains for charter school attendance held for urban and suburban schools and at elementary, middle and high school levels. The results were substantial, and often reflected a third of more of a year’s progress difference, especially if the students were from families in poverty compared to similar TPS students.

Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions, although California teachers are not particularly underpaid relative to other states’ teachers, although in our urban and some of our suburban areas the high cost of living reduces their effective salaries.  Teachers are in demand and have both low salaries and low unemployment, defying the law of supply and demand, probably because they are limited by requiring public money for their salaries and must compete against many other public interests. That they receive such low salaries compared to other professions may reflect either lack of respect for the profession among the public or simply resistance to public spending and the greater taxes that would be needed to increase their salaries.

Curtailing the growth of charter schools is not an answer to better funding for the TPS system, nor for increasing TPS teachers’ salaries, especially since charter schools have such positive results. It may be that regulations for charter schools need to be strengthened, although that remains to be proven. What definitely is true is that we need to elevate the status and income of teachers and this means we need to invest more money in both our TPS and charter school systems and raise teacher salaries to match their worth in our children’s lives. It is incredible that people who play such an important role in shaping each new generation of Americans are compensated so little, relative to their worth. Such increases in salary and education funding will take changing the public’s willingness to pay more, not just protests against the existing administration of the system.



Reader Comments (2)

Couldn't the same be said for over 90% of all the occupations. Janitors, care-givers, garbage collectors, agricultural workers are among the most important occupations in America and are at the bottom of wage scales.
I can guarantee that it is more trying to be a burger flipper working at the whim of the system than the president of a bank...And if I am hungry the burger flipper is far more important.
Wages are only loosely related to supply /demand over a wide range and are probably more related to monopolistic/monopsonistic practices like requirements of schooling, licensing, unions, etc. and the effects of systemic racsim, sexism, ageism, etc.

Are teachers paid enough? Not until everyone is paid the same will there be fairness in labor markets.

January 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

We should use Finland as an example of the best educational system in the world. I know that whenever I say that, the nay-sayers immediately respond, but Finland has a homogeneous population. So what? Having spent 40+ years in public education, 39 of them at the university level, I long ago noticed that public education was beset by two problems, the first intractable until we get a hold of bigotry and stifle it: since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, a lot of white people, in all areas of the country, decided that if the people of color were to have equal education, the whites would make sure that it wouldn't be quality education. They took their kids out of school and put them in private and in religious schools, they became the white flight to white suburbs, and they consistently voted against taxes for public education. The other problem, which could be remedied with only a little application of will, is the extremely poor quality of schools of education in even premier universities. The worst students, the ones who have to fulfill the fewer course requirements in their future specialization, are future teachers. They are allowed to remain willfully and arrogantly ignorant by schools of education run like fiefdoms by deans interested only in numbers, not achievement, of students.

January 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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