Hand-harvesting fruits and vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley is back-breaking work, done under the burning sun by people who are always on the move from farm to farm, county to county, following the crops. Not only is it back-breaking, and the living conditions appalling, but the pay is rock bottom because the people who buy the fruit and vegetables in the grocery stores across the country don’t want to pay any more than they already do for their food. So most Americans would rather be unemployed than do this work, which is therefore done by very poor migrants, often from Mexico. On the status ladder of American workers, these workers cannot even reach the bottom rung.
So it was a bit of a shock to read in Governing Magazine that the Sacramento Unified School District in California is now recruiting its special education teachers from the Philippines. The reasons for this and the controversy it has produced open a window into the current state of American education.
It is, of course, all about money. Sacramento Unified couldn’t find special education teachers from the U.S. because of the salaries it was offering. Paolo Legaspi, one of the special education teachers the district hired from the Manila area is making $5,700 a month in Sacramento, a lot more than the $500 a month he was making in the Philippines. Of course, his living expenses are higher, too, but, by sharing an apartment with some of the other Filipino hires, travelling to work by bus and eating all his meals in his apartment, he was able to send a lot of his paycheck home to his family and save toward his goal of opening his own business when he returns to Manila. And return he will, because his visa can be renewed only once, so he is, in effect, a temporary worker.
This sounds a lot like the Eastern European immigrants who came to New York City at the turn of the last century to live and work in tenements under terrible conditions long enough to bring their families over and, after years of struggle, begin their trek into the middle class. But we are not speaking here of immigrants doing low-skill, menial work; we are speaking here of American school teachers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. What’s going on here?
For the answer to that question, I turned to an article about this issue in the Sacramento Bee. It was written more than a year ago, but there is no reason to believe that the terms of the debate have changed since then. The article is enlightening, but what is truly interesting is the exchange that follows among those who chose to comment on the article.
District leaders say, as you would expect, that they simply cannot find special education teachers at the salaries they are able to pay, which are below those of a number of surrounding districts. English is an official language of the Philippine schools, they say, and these teachers are fully qualified to teach special education. The district is paying the salaries required under their contract with the union, so that, they say, is not an issue and the students are getting the services they need.
The teachers respond by saying that they do not expect to be paid like doctors and attorneys, but they do expect to be paid at rates comparable to those in surrounding districts. Though the teachers of Sacaramento Unified School District agreed to take big hits on compensation during the financial crisis, their compensation has not recovered despite the fact that the district is in the best financial shape it has ever been in, and the superintendent of schools is the highest paid in the whole area, with district administrators coming in at a close second. Teachers, however, come in at number 12. From the teachers’ point of view, it is clear that by every measure the administrators are overpaid and the teachers underpaid.
Not so fast, says the district management. The low salaries should, they say, be considered in a larger context. The teachers have the richest benefit package of all the area districts. Among those benefits are lifetime insurance for the costs of health, vision and dental care for the teacher and her family, with no contribution from the employee. The district points out that these benefits constitute a large and growing unfunded liability for the district. If that unfunded liability is not dealt with, they say, the district risks coming to a moment of truth that will undermine its ability to pay its bills, including what it owes the teachers. If they raise salaries without dealing with the benefit package, that will only hasten the day of judgment, they say, and that would be irresponsible.
A commenter who claims to come from a long line of teachers accuses the teachers of “whining.” “You knew when you signed up that you were not going to make much money,” he says. “Why are you complaining now?” he asks.
And back comes a response from a teacher who points out that, in the 1950s and 60s, most teachers were making a second income in a family in which her husband was the primary wage earner, and, in any case, a married teacher with a family could make enough all by herself to buy a house and support a family. But, she says, the hyperinflation of the 1970s eroded the purchasing power of teachers’ salaries, producing a growing gap between teachers’ compensation and the compensation of people in other occupations requiring the same amount of education.
But the critics had other points to make. Teachers, they said, don’t work a full year, so, in their view, it is not reasonable for the teachers to compare their salaries to those of full-year, full-time workers.
And that prompts an accounting by one of the teachers. She points out that teachers are expected to be in front of students through the entire contracted work day, have to put in extra time at school coaching or supervising extracurricular activities to make ends meet, and are expected to review and grade papers, prepare lessons and do their paperwork on their own time, have only a half hour at lunch and have no paid holidays or paid vacations. By her accounting, the teachers actually do put in the 2080 hours a year (40 hours a week for 52 weeks) just like other full time workers, but they do it in 184 days instead of 260 days.
But the critics were still not done. “Why,” one wants to know, “is California ranked 9th worst in the nation? How can California teachers demand more money when the results are so poor and the teachers refuse to take any responsibility for the outcome? All they want,” he says, “is more, more, more.”
To which a teacher responds by saying that California teachers have the largest class sizes in the nation. They serve students who speak 60 different languages. The 1.3 million English language learners in California, she says, represent 23 percent of the student population. California, she says, has the worst ratios of students to librarians, nurses and counselors in the nation. It has the 5th lowest funding per student in the United States. Five states, she says, spend at least twice as much per student. Which is quite a come-down for the state, which, prior to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1979, had the 6th highest funding per student in the country.
I have not checked the statistics offered by the participants in this debate. It may be enough to know that the participants believed them to be accurate and none of the statistics were challenged by anyone in the comment string. Indeed, with rare exceptions, the facts were not in dispute. Rather, each participant picked out the facts that best fit their point of view.
So, what should we make of this debate? What does it tell us about why Sacramento Unified is hiring its teachers from a developing country? What does it say about what we have to do now?
It is true that, half a century ago, teachers made enough to buy a house and support a family. It is also true that most teachers, however, were not viewed as the primary wage earner and therefore did not need to make as much as others with the same amount of education. It is true that the gap between teachers’ compensation and the compensation of others with the same amount of education widened considerably in the 1970s. That’s why the NEA became a union and the AFT grew substantially in strength. But school boards, faced with strike threats from the newly organized teachers’ organizations, preferred to sweeten the benefits package to increasing teachers’ salaries because the cost of an increase in salaries hit the bottom line immediately and was very public, requiring an immediate increase in tax rates, whereas the cost of raising benefits was not so public and would be paid not by current taxpayers but future taxpayers, long after the current school board members had retired. So salaries fell further and further behind as the looming bill for benefits was pushed further and further down the road.
It is true that, as time went on, the students, especially in California got poorer and poorer and more and more of them came from families in which English was not spoken at home. It is true that the bottom fell out of school funding in California, the victim of a taxpayer revolt, especially among retirees, against spiraling property taxes. Inevitably, as revenues for the schools plunged and the needs of the students grew, student performance suffered. The public, many of whom were themselves in a growing financial squeeze, looked at the falling student performance and a benefit package that they could only dream about, to say nothing of what they saw as teachers asking for full-time pay while taking the whole summer off, put their feet down. Teacher compensation came under increasing pressure. School boards realized that the moment of reckoning with respect to unfunded liabilities was now closing in on them, so they could no longer just give the teachers what they wanted under the table while keeping the taxpayers happy above the table.
And so the stage was set for hiring Sacramento’s teachers from the Phillippines. So what now?
Raise your hand if you think that the United States can match the performance of the countries with the world’s highest student performance by outsourcing its teaching to lower wage countries. If your hand is still down, then raise it if you think that the United States can even maintain its mediocre position in the world’s league table of student academic performance if it were to hire more and more of its teachers from the Philippines or countries like it. Your hand is still down? If it is, then we need to have an honest conversation about what it would take to develop and hire teachers with skills comparable to those found everywhere in the top-performing countries. We need to have a conversation about how we develop and retain those teachers instead of contracting that effort out to the lowest international bidder.
The answer to that query can be found in Empowered Educators, the new study from California’s Linda Darling-Hammond with funding and support from NCEE, in which she describes at length the policies and practices that have enabled those countries to staff all of their schools with very high-quality teachers at a cost per student no greater than what the United States now pays. There is nothing in that prescription that California—or any other state--cannot do if it chooses to do it.
The reason you might want to focus on Sacramento Unified is that it stands as a not-so-mute monument to what is very likely to happen to your district and state if they continue on their present course. Sacramento Unified is no accident. Or, if it is, it was an accident waiting to happen.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.