Race to the Left

Published April 4, 2019

In July, 2015, a full year before the last Democratic National Convention, the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. This infuriated many teachers, who preferred Bernie Sanders, rightfully feeling they had no role in the decision. AFT president Randi Weingarten admitted there were “trust issues,” although she placed the blame – apparently with a straight face – on “Russian bots” and the “Bernie camp.”

Now, for a candidate to get the union’s endorsement, he or she will be subjected to strict scrutiny on issues that the union holds near and dear – universal healthcare, free tuition at public colleges, etc. Shortly after AFT opened the door to all comers in mid-March, candidate Kamala Harris walked in waving a big bag of juicy red meat. In the Washington Post last Tuesday, she proclaimed, “The United States is facing a teacher pay crisis. Public school teachers earn 11 percent less than professionals with similar educations.” To address the situation which Harris asserts is “creating disastrous consequences,” she is proposing to provide the average teacher with a $13,500 raise with states being forced to add $1 to the pot for every $3 the feds throw in.

This would cost taxpayers about $315 billion in federal funds over the next decade, and that does not include the state “contribution.” She claims that the money will come from closing loopholes that one-percenters take advantage of. Needless to say, Randi Weingarten was full of praise for the plan, saying it is “a bold, smart, strategic and decisive proposal that will help make teaching a respected profession by paying teachers a living wage.” The Harris plan could also be popular with voters, as surveys often show that Americans think teachers are underpaid. For example, a recent PDK poll revealed that 66 percent of Americans believe that teachers in their community don’t get paid enough.

The Harris plan was likely influenced by a 2018 Center for American Progress report which insists that “teachers earn 60 percent of the average salaries of similarly educated full-time professionals.” The far-left policy outfit suggested a $10,000 tax credit be given to teachers.

The selling points for Kamala Harris, Randi Weingarten, the Center of American Progress, and other half-truthers all center on the idea that teachers are professionals, and should make as much as other professionals. And then there is reality.

Yes, teachers do make less than some other professionals, but there are valid reasons for that. First of all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers work on average 1,398 hours per year, whereas lawyers put in 2,036 hours per annum, almost 50 percent more time on the job than teachers. Dentists (1,998 hours/year) and accountants (2,074 hours/year) also work many more hours than teachers.

The half-truthers also conveniently omit the perks that teachers receive. Andrew Biggs, American Enterprise Institute researcher, and Jason Richwine, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, released a study in 2011 in which they found that teachers are actually overpaid. Unlike other studies, theirs includes the perks that teachers typically receive as part of their compensation package, like excellent healthcare and pension packages that aren’t counted as “income.” Armed with data, the authors make a solid case. They find that workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs “receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.”

In a similar vein, researcher James Agresti writes that teachers are paid much more than commonly acknowledged. For the 2016–17 school year, the average salary of full-time public school teachers was $58,950 in the U.S. But this figure excludes benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions. According to the Department of Labor, such benefitscomprise an average of 33 percent of total compensation for public school teachers. When they are added in, teachers’ average annual compensation jumps to $87,854. And even that amount does not include unfunded pension liabilities and certain post-employment benefits like health insurance, which are not measured by the Department of Labor. In Los Angeles, not only are retired teachers covered for life, so are their spouses and children up to age 26. Rest assured that many of the 66 percent of Americans polled by PDK who think teachers are underpaid are unaware of what teachers actually bring in.

Another factor that destroys the “teachers as professionals” argument is how educators are paid, which, unlike other professions, is not by merit. The step-and-column method, whereby teachers – no matter how talented they may be – are paid primarily by their number of years on the job. They can also increase their salaries by taking “professional development” classes. However, conclusive research by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek and others shows that these classes have zero effect on student learning. This ends up being nothing more than a way to game the system and further hose the taxpayer. In fact, a merit pay-based system would attract better quality educators, which we desperately need.

Also, doctors, lawyers and other professionals don’t have organizations that protect incompetents. The industrial-style labor unions see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their fossilized work rules like tenure and seniority – perennial union mainstays.

But, whatever, the politicians and teacher union leaders will continue to hawk their myths. Candidate Beto O’Rourke has also jumped into the pay fray, telling a crowd in Manchester, NH, “We want to guarantee that no schoolteacher works a second or a third job.”

I eagerly await socialist Bernie Sanders’ taxpayer-screwing plan. Grab a beer and some munchies – the race to the left is on.

[Originally Published at California Policy Center]