Originally published in The American Prospect on May 8, 2018.
Teachers are on the march across America. This year has seen a stunning eruption of invigorated teacher movements in states that rarely make this kind of political news—places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Though these mobilized teachers have been careful to frame their demands for higher pay in the context of increased spending for students and schools, there is no doubt that raising their own salaries has been a key priority.
Local and national media have worked hard to lift the voices of teachers taking to the streets. We’ve read about educators with virtually no savings or chance of affording a vacation. We’ve met teachers forced to moonlight as cashiers and Uber drivers. We’ve learned about educators’ stagnant or falling wages, and their spiking health-care premiums.
The stories have been infuriating.
That’s partly why the teacher movements have commanded such strong public support. A national poll released in late April found about 78 percent of surveyed adults felt schools don’t pay teachers enough, half said they’d pay more in taxes to fund teacher pay increases, and 52 percent said they’d back educators who strike for higher wages.
Looming behind this infectious momentum, though, are some other uncomfortable realities.
In 2016, the median annual income for a full-time worker stood at $45,860. Someone working full-time at $15 an hour—a minimum wage goal heralded by progressives—could earn an annual salary of just $31,200. And we know minimum wage earners are no longer just high school kids scooping ice cream in the summer. The average-age of a minimum-wage worker is 35, and more than a quarter have children.
Teachers, by comparison, are above-average earners. The average American public school teacher earned $58,950 in 2017. And while the states with active teacher movements have some of the lowest educator pay, those salaries still stack up reasonably well against the low level brought home by the average American. In 2016, West Virginia high school teachers earned an average of $45,240 per year, in a state where median earnings amounted to $27,543 . In Arizona, the high school teacher average stood at $48,020, where median earnings were just $30,096. And in Oklahoma, the average high school teacher earned $42,460, in a state where median earnings reached $29,038.
This is not to say that teachers have it fine—far from it. It’s certainly not a call for educators to go home or to stop protesting. But it does raise a question that needs to be on the table: if we think these teachers are not earning enough, where does that leave the millions earning even less?
What is the argument for raising teacher pay?
Some ground their support for higher teacher pay in education policy. They argue you’ll get the quality of teachers you pay for, and teacher pay lags behind other white-collar professionals. The Economic Policy Institute found that teachers’ weekly wages are 23 percent lower than those of other college graduates. If a teacher can’t earn enough to pay off their student loans, they’ll probably think twice before becoming an educator.
From this vantage point, if we want to do improve the quality of teaching, then we need to offer more competitive salaries to recruit and retain the most talented. And there is evidence that raising pay can reduce teacher turnover.
Others have a less technocratic view. Many Americans support raising teacher pay simply because they support teachers. We recognize teachers are doing important and often thankless work, and the idea that on top of all this they’d be struggling to make ends meet strikes us as cruel and outrageous.
And yet, teaching is just one of many important, thankless jobs in America. Does our outrage stem from full-time workers not being able to make ends meet—or teachers specifically? Have teachers successfully mobilized because people think they deserve different, and better, treatment than other workers?
There is evidence that schoolteachers are held in special regard by the public, in similar fashion to police, firefighters, and the military. Like those groups, support for teachers has remained consistently high over the years.
In other words, no matter how it’s framed, the idea that educators provide a special service and should be well compensated for it seems central to the teacher pay debate. The debate has not focused, more broadly, on what Americans need to live secure economic lives in 2018.
But paying workers based on public perceptions of their value to society raises thorny problems.
We can see these issues emerge in debates around early childhood education workers, who, unlike K-12 teachers, do not earn anything near an average wage. The national median income for child-care workers stands at $20,320; for preschool teachers, it’s $28,570.
This past January The New York Times ran a magazine feature headlined: “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid The Least?” It reviewed social science research highlighting the economic and academic returns of high-quality preschool programs. As part of the emerging consensus around the value of early childhood education, policymakers and advocates have begun to ramp up pressure to raise the salaries of early childhood teachers.
But what if there weren’t studies showing preschool was so beneficial for students’ futures, and these teachers couldn’t be deemed “the most important”?
Would preschool teachers be condemned to live off $29,000 a year?
This is not just a hypothetical, because educators aren’t the only ones embroiled in this current movement. And indeed how and whether classroom teachers choose to stand up for other workers will surely shape the future of this education uprising. In West Virginia, teachers successfully pushed for wage increases not just for themselves, but also for bus drivers and school cooks. But when hundreds of school bus drivers in DeKalb County, Georgia went on strike in April to protest their low pay and working conditions, they did not meet real solidarity from local educators. These drivers, whose annual income is reportedly $23,500, were not making the case that their unique talents merit greater monetary reward. They simply argued that their current earnings were not enough live on. Eight school bus drivers were swiftly fired for their protests.
If we opt to pay some workers better because we’ve decided their services are more societally important, where does that leave everyone else?
This is not a call for everyone to be paid equally. But we need to consider whether we want economic stability to be the exclusive province of the groups we deem most deserving. If we can be outraged by teachers making $55,000 a year and still struggling to make ends meet, then there should be room for outrage over the millions of workers who are even less fortunate—and policy solutions that can help everyone.