Monday, February 22, 2010

Pay Them What They're Worth

Background Information: I am a teacher at a relatively affluent private high school. I am not tenured (tenure isn’t offered to us), and I don’t belong to a union. I have a private retirement account. I do not hold an education degree, nor do I hold any state certification. This is my seventh year as a teacher, and my seventh at my current school. My pay is immaterial, because every dollar I get has been paid to me along a chain of people who gave it up willingly (as opposed to through taxation).

I take the position that the government should not be in the business of education. Everyone who works in the federal Department of Education should lose his job, and any real estate currently held by the federal DOE should be sold off to the public. I don’t think many people would even notice the change. Then, the people can begin to reclaim their power over education from the state government, just as the states reclaimed it from the federal government. I can see this taking a long time to accomplish, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Teacher Pay
Many people claim teachers are grossly overpaid, and many teachers believe that they’re grossly underpaid. Teaching has many more variables than the average job: teacher ability, years of experience, education level, number of classes, number of courses, types of courses, number of students, types of students, etc.. A teacher’s salary should depend on all of these things, some of which are pretty subjective. It is impossible for any political institution to give it this kind of tailored approach. Teachers are paid closest to what they’re worth in the private sector- where salaries are determined by a market, rather than politics.

Every single thing about our public schools is politicized, A to Z. Be it teacher salaries, when to get tenure, how many hours to work, issues with merit-based pay, pensions, shutting down “failing schools”, the curriculum, what courses to include, who gets the best parking spot, you name it. This is because public education is a government job (I once had a public school teacher brag about this to me). Because everybody’s taxes are on the line, everybody wants things their way. Frustrated by trying to cater to everyone, it should be no surprise that only a few people involved really have their needs met.

With regards to how much a teacher should make, I have a better question: who should decide how much they make? Should it be the relatively small group of people who own and operate the school on their own terms (whose customers are willing to pay for)? Or should it be the government? Teachers throwing a coup over a pay freeze is a natural consequence of government-run education. The politics of education necessitates having a teacher’s union as a way to mitigate political maltreatment and favoritism. They’re combating the force of government with their own force. Now, the government is again trying to respond with force. This is the way politics and power games work. Who knows what the next move will be?

Of course, that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, when the boss tells you your pay is getting frozen, you either accept it or you quit and find a better position. You can’t get together with your buddies to force everybody to play the game the way you want it played. It’s sad to see educators reduced to just another special interest group fighting for its piece of the government’s power. They’re likely to say (and truly believe) they’re fighting for what’s fair, but the truth is that without some sort of reference point, nobody in this situation can say what is and isn’t fair. If all that stood in the way of a pay hike for me was threatening a strike or a little lobbying, I could probably fool myself into thinking I was fighting for fairness, too. But being outside the system, I know better.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any of this leading to a discussion of the real problem: how to release American education from an endless political tug-of-war. This soap opera will continue and all we’ll have to show for it in the end will be higher taxes. The argument for less government in education should be championed by every teacher who knows she's worth her compensation (and more). It is the only way to ensure that good teachers get paid what they're worth. Is is also the only way to destroy the black hole for taxpayer money that is a bad teacher's tenure and pension.


  1. From the part,
    "Then, the people can begin to reclaim their power over education from the state government, just as the states reclaimed it from the federal government."
    In what way did the states reclaim educational power back from the federal government? I wasn't aware that there was ever a shift like that.

  2. You're right. The sentence is unclear.
    It should probably say 'will have' before 'reclaimed'.