I’ve been told for my entire life that public-school teachers are underpaid. Even if that was true at one time, is it true any longer?
Public school teachers are at the forefront of protests against state budget cuts and restrictions on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and elsewhere.
Teachers have a lot to lose. According to Department of Education statistics, in 2007-2008 (the latest year available), full-time public school teachers across the country made an average of $53,230 in “total school-year and summer earned income.” That compares favorably to the $39,690 that private school teachers pulled down.
And when it comes to retirement benefits, public school teachers do better than average too. According to EducationNext, government employer contribute the equivalent of 14.6 percent of salary to retirement benefits for public school teachers. That compares to 10.4 for private-sector professionals.
Those levels of compensation help explain why per-pupil school costs have risen substantially over the past 50 years. In 1960-61, public schools spent $2,769 per student, a figure that now totals over $10,000 in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. Among the things that threefold-plus increase in spending has purchased are more teachers per student. In 1960, the student-teacher ratio in public schools was 25.8; it’s now at a historic low of 15.
Among the things all that money hasn’t bought? Parental satisfaction, for one. Despite public teachers’ much-higher salaries, parents with school-age children in public schools report substantially lower satisfaction rates than parents with children in private schools. In 2007, the percentage of parents with children in assigned public schools who were “very satisfied” with the institution was 52 percent. For parents whose children attended public schools of choice, that figure rose to 62 percent. Parents sending their children to private schools, whether religious or non-sectarian, were “very satisfied” 79 percent of the time.
It’s little wonder that parents with little or no choice report the lowest-levels of satisfaction (about 90 percent of K-12 students attend public schools). Despite all the extra resources devoted to public school teachers and students, student achievement has been absolutely flat over the past 40 years. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is “the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.” When it comes to 17-year-old students (effectively, high-school seniors), nothing has changed since reporting began in the early 1970s. In 1971, 17-year-old students averaged 285 points (out of 500) in reading. In 2008, that had risen to 286. For math in 1973, the average score was 304 (out of 500). In 2008, it was 306.
Public school teachers make about $14,000 a year more in straight salary than private school teachers; when you add in benefits, the gap widens even more. They teach fewer students than ever before and taxpayers at all levels spend increasing amounts of money on education. Yet for all that, the best you can say is that we’re spending more than three times as much money as we were 40 years ago for exactly the same outcomes.
The National Governors Association says that states are looking at $175 billion in shortfalls over the next two years. Local governments are in the red too. As legislators look for places to cut or reduce spending, there’s no question that public school teachers have a lot to lose in terms of compensation.
And there’s no question that, even if there were no budget emergencies, the nation’s public school system is failing to return much of anything on an ever-growing pile of tax dollars.
Reason looks at the facts and intersperses the data with some now-familiar scenes of teacher protests, set to a particularly apt piece of music.