Schools in America

Last winter, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) traveled his state, holding a series of townhalls in which he touted a significant but politically unpopular plan: asking public school teachers to accept a pay freeze and begin contributing 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health care plans, whereas before they paid nothing. It’s a battle that pitted Christie against powerful teachers unions, and it’s a fight that has brought the issue of teacher pay to the center of the public square.

That battle has played itself out across the country. Earlier this year in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker (R) faced a $3 billion structural deficit and the fourth-highest tax burden in the country. Among the reforms he enacted were limits to collective bargaining power and reform of public employee benefit plans, which included asking public-sector employees (including teachers) to make a 5.8 percent contribution into their pension plans and pick up the tab for 12 percent of their health care benefits, whereas before they paid nothing. Walker’s actions led to unionized education employees leaving schools in protest and Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state in order to prevent the plan from passing the legislature.

Today, Governor John Kasich of Ohio (R) faces a similar fight. Earlier this year, the state legislature enacted reforms of public sector union benefits, but now the issue is up for repeal in a statewide ballot initiative.

In New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio, teachers unions have led the effort to beat back the reforms, arguing that teachers are overworked and underpaid and taking issue with even modest reforms to pension benefits as states grapple with budget deficits. But a new paper by Jason Richwine, Ph.D. and Andrew Biggs addresses the question of teacher pay head on and asks whether teachers today receive the right level of pay. They find that when benefits such as tenure, health care, and pensions are considered, the typical public-school teacher is well-paid: “We conclude that public-school-teacher salaries are comparable to those paid to similarly skilled private-sector workers, but that more generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”

Richwine and Biggs also find that when it comes to pay, some of the best teachers are being left behind:

While union contracts help secure overcompensation for the average teacher, they may still leave the most valuable teachers underpaid. School administrators need to be able to hire and fire teachers as needed, basing personnel decisions on rigorous value-added evaluations and setting pay based on prevailing market rates.

Case in point: the Farmington, Michigan, school district. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports that in that district, the average gym teacher’s salary is $75,035, whereas science teachers make $68,483 on average. Likewise, in Harrison, Michigan, “science teachers earned $49,000 on average while gym teachers averaged $62,000.” Tom Gantert writes, “This is not unusual, because school districts don’t differentiate what a teacher does when considering compensation, regardless of the district’s educational needs. Teachers are paid on a single salary schedule based on seniority and education level.” And that single salary schedule is negotiated in the union contract.

More than ever, high-quality teachers and ensuring that our children have the best education possible is central to America’s future. The best teachers should be rewarded, and schools should have the freedom to make the right decisions to get the job done.

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