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Are Teachers Actually Overpaid?

No, the headline is not a typo. It's the conclusion of a new study "Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers" by Jason Richwine, senior policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, and Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They attempt to show that public school teachers receive compensation far more generous than is widely believed. They cite summers off, job security, and fringe benefits (health insurance etc.) that make "total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year."

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother to comment about the study because none of it says anything that is really new. But because the media is giving it big play, I can't let the facts cited slide by.

Let's first look at the "generous" salaries paid to public school teachers. The average starting salary is $39,000. After 25 years, it is $67,000. This puts "the average teacher's pay on par with that of a toll taker or bartender" ("The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries," The New York Times, Apr. 11, 2011). Richwine and Biggs would argue that these numbers are misleading because they do not reflect fringe benefits. But even when they are factored in, they still price teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and make raising a family on one salary alone nearly impossible. What good does a hefty pension do for a teacher who is still teaching?

Then there's the issue of "market rates" that Richwine and Biggs use as their touchstone. If they genuinely believe in the marketplace, then they need to consider what it is saying about teaching. For example, the number of teaching credentials issued in California fell 29 percent from 28,039 in 2004-05 to 20,032 in 2009-10, according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. If teachers are paid a hidden premium, as Richwine and Biggs maintain, then how do they explain what is happening in the nation's largest state where the rate of unemployment is 11.9 percent? Wouldn't college graduates who are unable to find work in the private sector despite months of searching turn to teaching if the pay and benefits were as good as the authors argue?

Which brings me to the last point. Why don't Richwine and Biggs use data about college professors in their study? If any single group deserves consideration as a comparison, those teaching in college qualify. Charles Sykes was one of the first to expose the pay issue in Prof Scam (St. Martin's Press, 1988). Since then there have been a series of books on the subject. Richwine and Biggs would probably claim that college professors and public school teachers can't be compared because the requirements for their respective jobs are too different. But they have no problem comparing public school teachers with private sector workers who have even less in common.

If an author wants to make headlines, the surest way is to be provocative. But just because charges appear valid at first glance doesn't necessarily make them so. As I've written before: If teaching is such a plum job, then why don't more people go into the field? I'm still waiting for an answer, but I'm not holding my breath.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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