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The Bottom Line The Teacher Pay Debate (Part 1): Why the Debate?

[Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a three-part article. Click to read Part Two and Part Three.]

How can we pay teachers more? The question was raised this week by an American Center for Transforming Education reader. The premise of the question is teachers are not adequately paid, a frequently heard argument. But what is the reality? The teacher pay debate will be examined in a three-part article. 

When respondents are not provided any salary information for context, an Education Next poll found 72% of the general population believes public school teacher salaries should increase. When provided with teacher salary information, that percentage fell to 56 — yet still over half of those surveyed felt teachers were underpaid. Forty percent said salaries should “stay about the same,” while only five percent felt a decrease in teacher pay was in order.

Most other professions don’t encounter public polls assessing whether employees are overpaid, adequately paid, or underpaid. So why the pay debate regarding public educators? Is it primarily because these teachers are government employees funded by taxpayer money? Likely not, since the salaries of post office or department of motor vehicle licensing personnel are seldom a subject of discussion (with the possible exception of those times when one is standing in a long, slow-moving line or experiencing less than stellar customer service at the post office or DMV).

Conversely, public school teacher pay provokes strong and sometimes emotionally heated opinions. A combination of at least three key factors is likely at work. First is the sheer number of teachers per state. In some communities, K-12 public education is among the largest employer, and teachers are more visible than professionals in other industries. Second is the life-shaping influence a teacher can have on students — and subsequently their entire family. Third, teacher unions possess a boisterous megaphone to proclaim their members are underpaid, which keeps the issue in the headlines.

Factor three requires special focus because teacher unions’ influence on the public education system is highly problematic. Teachers pay dues, and in turn, teacher unions negotiate for increased teacher pay and benefits, year-after-year. If demands aren’t met, teachers strike — to the detriment of students and their parents.

Teacher unions maintain their dominance through political action, providing substantial funding to candidates in exchange for support and advancement of their agenda. For example, just prior to the 2020 November election, the National Education Association had raised $23 million, with 99% allocated to Democratic candidates. The American Federation of Teachers pumped nearly $10.7 million into the 2020 election, with 98.6% donated toward Democrats. It’s no wonder that Democratic party elected officials cater to teacher union agendas, especially when those unions promote a narrative of harmful teacher working conditions (including outright danger in a COVID-19 era) and near poverty level pay.

Teaching is a noble profession, and public appreciation of what teachers do fuel a passionate belief with many that teachers should be paid more. However, the more teachers earn, the more money their unions receive, and union control grows — hence, a mutually beneficial financial and power relationship. But the fundamental question remains. Beyond the public opinion polls and teacher union narrative, what is the reality of K-12 public school teacher pay? This question will be examined in Part Two of this series. 

Keri D. Ingraham

Director and Fellow, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. Her areas of education expertise include innovation, thought leadership, research, online learning best practices, customized hybrid program development, business model creation, operations effectiveness, and strategic planning for sustainability and scaling.