How Much Should Teachers Make? Who Cares!

Published August 8, 2011

Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan no doubt thought it radical to say that teachers should get a $60,000 yearly starting salary and top out around $150,000. He’s hoping this could shift teaching from attracting undergraduates at the middle or low ends of their classes, as it does now, to attracting high-performers who are evaluated, pushed, and paid accordingly.

Duncan might believe he’s thinking big, and so may his audience, but he’s not thinking big enough. His superficial understanding of incentives would, if implemented within existing education mindsets and structures, actually undermine time-tested paths towards creativity and personal success.

Instead of challenging assumptions, Duncan’s comment confirms our current, zero-sum system of education financing: “Some people will immediately say that we can’t afford it without even looking at how to redirect the money we are already spending—and mis-spending,” he said. He’s right about the latter: Education spending has tripled in real terms in the past 50 years, yet students’ test scores remain mediocre and lag behind those in other developed nations.

The Obama administration has spiked the waste by spending more than $80 billion in one-time sprees above the Education Department’s $40 billion annual budget and requesting an 11 percent increase for the department in FY 2012.

And Duncan is wrong about teacher pay. Many teachers already make six-figure salaries, and routinely retire at 90 percent of their final salary plus benefits at taxpayer expense when no longer teaching. Remember—these same teachers leave American students with persistently rotten test scores.

A better and actually rethought system might adapt the basic principle of the American Dream: individuals should be able to expect a reasonable return on hard and excellent work over time, benefitting both the person offering the service and those paying for it. Hong Kong apparently gets this: private, “celebrity” tutors there can make $1.5 million a year and drive Lamborghinis. They achieve this by offering parents and students an attractive service, and delivering. If all teachers did this, or were free to, the Department of Education and teachers unions wouldn’t have to turn to politics to demand respect and high salaries.

It’s not clever or innovative to slot teachers into a certain salary range. Real innovation and common sense would set them free to make as much as their talents can support.

Unfortunately, American education funding is a spaghetti-tangled mess of formulas, restrictions, and competing agendas that distort the market and don’t reward success. It prices normal people out by spending roughly twice as much to get worse results than private schools, and reduces families’ ability to pay directly for competitive schools by increasing tax burdens to filter this spending through the government. It relentlessly chokes innovation by trying to certify, tax, or regulate it.

Instead of Duncan’s plan to throw more taxpayer money at the disastrous education status quo, let’s press pause on mandated government pay schedules and try common sense.

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.