September 10, 2023

Nancy Flanagan: Give Teachers More Money

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Nancy Flanagan has been looking at recent results for the PDK poll and notices an idea that has become popular. Reposted by permission. 

One of the more interesting results in the recent PDK poll was the strong support for paying teachers more. In addition to agreeing that teachers were overworked and undervalued, two-thirds of folks across the liberal-conservative spectrum thought that teachers were underpaid. It’s unsurprising that liberals (86%) thought teachers should be paid more—but 48% of conservatives agreed.

Because PDK is a real, actually scientific, poll with a long history, this is credible data. PDK even probes the question further, reminding participants (most of whom are not parents, by the way) that a raise in teacher pay has to come from somewhere:

There is a strong partisan aspect to views on raising teacher pay via higher property taxes, which provide a substantial portion of public school funding. Eighty-three percent of Democrats are in favor, declining to 67% of independents, and falling further to 48% of Republicans.

When you think of it, it’s pretty astonishing, a significant majority of the general citizenry agreeing that yeah, teachers really ought to make more money. Another factoid: back in 1981, only 29% of those polled by PDK felt that teachers were underpaid.

It’s tempting to think that folks have figured out just how essential schools and caring teachers are to a smoothly functioning society—perhaps the COVID shutdown engendered a new appreciation for the complexity of the work of teaching? Or have all the articles on the looming, alarming teacher shortage finally convinced people that the only way to fill those spots with qualified people is to pay teachers more?

Nah. Only half of the country (split right down partisan lines) believes the shortage of teachers is a serious problem—the other half doesn’t consider it a worrisome concern. Many in that second half—Republicans– want to put the focus on other issues, like controlling the curriculum and transgender bathrooms. Somehow, they seem to think, schools will always find ways to put warm bodies in classrooms.

Personally—as a person who has observed, up close, teacher pay trends for the last five decades–I think the poll reflects a nationwide, post-pandemic trend: Pay people what they deserve.

Everyone from the UPS driver who delivered your hand sanitizer, to the road construction crew sweating in this summer’s extreme heat, to the visiting nurses who manned COVID wards. Rising incomes are a real thing, especially among the segment of the population that has been scraping along. The fact that teachers fit into this group ought to be a national disgrace.

David Leonhardt, in the NY Times, discussing the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes:

The trend is a microcosm of larger developments. Nationwide, the pay of the bottom 90 percent of earners has trailed well behind economic growth in recent decades (as you can see in these Times charts). Most Americans have not received their share of the economy’s growing bounty, while a relatively small share have experienced very large income gains.

That’s not shocking. As the economist Thomas Piketty has explainedinequality tends to rise in a capitalist economy, partly because the wealthy have more political power and economic leverage than the middle class and poor do. But history also shows that rising inequality is not inevitable.

So teacher pay—like the BOTTOM 90 PERCENT, holy tamales—has trailed behind our burgeoning economic growth, while a small slice of wealthy people have capitalized (word chosen intentionally) on the way the United States economy has been shaped, since Laffer sketched his trickle-down theories on a napkin, and Reagan cut taxes on the rich.

Reminder: in 1981, at the start of the Reagan presidency, 71% of the population felt teachers were adequately paid.

There are other factors cross-cutting teacher pay, of course. Racism and sexism spring to mind, and the ever-present notion that teachers just love the kids and the work so much that they’re content with emotional satisfaction rather than a sufficient paycheck.

While we’re thinking about how much more we need to pay teachers— how about 20% raises, for starters, commensurate with what other college-educated professionals make —let’s also consider why we expect teachers to provide their own classroom supplies, or hustle them on donation sites? The average teacher spends $800 of her own money, annually, on furnishing and enhancing her classroom.

This summer, I have bought books for a half-dozen teachers I know, from their Amazon donation sites. And if $800 sounds high to you—consider the range of things that make classrooms welcoming, beginning with Kleenex and ending with a rocking chair. Most teachers I know buy snacks and band-aids, and while it might be embarrassing to put this on an Amazon list, sanitary supplies for girls.

It’s time for a major shift. Let’s pay teachers more. They’re worth it.

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