Salaries: Chasing Teachers From The Profession

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When I started teaching 25 years ago, the schools were almost exclusively a woman's world, with a sprinkling of men on hand for such traditionally male preserves as shop and science. Of course, the pay was low, as it was for all service jobs in which women predominated. But even though we were underpaid in view of the training we had, the job had other rewards. It was considered dignified and important, and it offered a sense of fulfillment.

Public attitudes were generally positive toward public education and educators. In Minnesota, where my husband and I taught for a few years, and in Los Angeles, our home since 1960, schools were relatively pleasant places that were adequately staffed. At each elementary school, for example, there was a nurse, a penmanship teacher, and a physical education instructor. A roving music teacher came once a week.

Today, the teaching profession still is predominantly female, but times have changed dramatically. Women are no longer content to volunteer their income-generating talents for "good works." An increasingly large number of women now are heads of households, single and self-supporting, or earners of vital second salaries.

The teaching profession, however, has not kept pace with these changes. Teachers are paid less than other employees of the school system who work at unskilled jobs with far fewer responsibilities. In overwhelming numbers, these less demanding jobs are filled by men.

It was this inequity that several months ago prompted a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, Roberta Weintraub, to call for a study to determine the comparable worth of various school-system jobs. But Weintraub was unable to muster a single vote to support her motion. I believe the school board will come to regret its shortsightedness.

The maximum salary for a beginning teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District is a meager $1,348 per four-week pay period, $350 less than the pay for school painters, who are due for an increase. A family of four attempting to live on a starting teacher's salary easily qualifies for food stamps. Nearly one out of three teachers is a man, and many are forced to moonlight to support their families. As a result, many men, as well as an increasing number of women, are being chased out of the teaching profession. Their defection has led to a shortage of teachers of math, science, and business. And prospects for their replacement are dim; teaching is no longer an attractive major for college students.

Like many other American workers, teachers now earn 25 percent less than they did a decade ago because of inflation. But during the same period, teachers' workloads increased, and they were expected to take on new responsibilities. The pressures and hazards of the job intensified. At the same time, teachers were robbed of the cherished esteem upon which they once had thrived and depended.

Public schools have become the dumping ground for most of society's worst ills. Teachers are expected to treat these ills as well as provide the social education that used to be taught at home or elsewhere in the community. Education is no longer confined to the "three R's."

Now it also requires the teaching of values and how to cope with personal relationships, including sex.

The school nurses, music teachers, and physical education instructors have disappeared. Calisthenics has been added to the classroom teachers' already overloaded curricula. The once-pleasant school environment is now dilapidated and dangerous.

While it's true that most teachers work only 40 weeks a year, we don't get paid for our vacations. And the long summer recess is not much of a holiday for teachers who must seek jobs to make ends meet as well as spend several weeks preparing for classes.

In rejecting the motion for a district-wide evaluation of jobs based on comparable worth, the Los Angeles Board of Education lodged predictable objections: The study itself would be costly, and the results would raise teachers' expectations at a time when the money for salary increases just isn't there.

Los Angeles teachers resent the board's cavalier handling of the proposal. The members made no attempt even to consider what such a study might entail. They overlooked the possibility that such a survey could examine whether comparable worth is indeed a valid concept in designing an equitable pay structure.

No one can deny that it will be costly to provide teachers with salaries commensurate with their value to society. And we teachers realize that in view of severe federal and state budget cuts, this is hardly the best moment to be discussing costly proposals to raise teachers' pay. Nevertheless, by dismissing the proposal, the board and the superintendent have shown a total disregard for simple fairness. They have cast aside the superintendent's stated goal of improving the morale of the people who teach our city's children.

Despite our board's action, this controversy won't vanish. For teachers, the question of what value the public places on their profession transcends the specific dollars involved. Teachers are doing a great job. They deserve to be recognized for it.

Vol. 01, Issue 20, Page 18

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