Teachers’ salaries and benefits have become, yet again, a topic of debate. Are we to be concerned that salaries are too low or outraged that benefits are so generous? Or, perhaps, can we talk about salaries as low and benefits as generous as the combined issue? These issues are percolating across the country.
The Associated Press reported, “Idaho’s low teacher pay is the biggest reason cited for teachers leaving the profession and the biggest challenge facing administrators in keeping and hiring teachers. Only 25 percent of superintendent and principals believe Idaho’s compensation packages are competitive, a challenge exacerbated by administrators in rural communities, according to the survey.”
In Florida, the State Education Department reported that teachers’ pay decreased by 1 percent from 2007-2008 to 2011- to 2012. Governor Scott responded with a proposal to give every teacher a $2,500 bonus. The New York State budget contains a proposal to offer $15,000 in annual stipends for four years to the most effective teachers beginning with math and science teachers. Simultaneously, the state is engaging more accountability for teachers, higher entrance requirements for teacher certification and a reform of the retirement levels. It seems that lawmakers are willing to pay more for better results but there is a second shoe.
The arguments are familiar and heated. Public employees do enjoy collective bargaining, protection of seniority and benefits like health insurance and retirement plans that many private employees do not. And yes, most still believe that teachers work a year similar to the one for students and less than most private employees and other professionals.
Public school leaders stand directly in the middle of this political debate. They are the ones negotiating through these opposing truths at board tables and in contract language. And while parents may think teachers’ benefits are fair, they are often the minority of voters in a school district. This is just another aspect in arena of public school leadership. It is exaggerated during times of economic hardship and substantial complexity. Those in leadership today have inherited contracts negotiated in different times, give backs are hard to come by, and benefits are strongly guarded. Placing blame does not create a solution. Salaries are not keeping pace with those of other professionals but benefits are pushing some systems to the brink. Predecessors with good intentions created these contracts and extended these benefits but they could not have foreseen the convergence of social, political and economic forces occurring in this moment. It is our turn to navigate and the old maps no longer serve.
Public employees have contracts that afford them salaries and benefits that those who chose other professions may not. Public employees are paid by tax dollars. Objections rise when private sector jobs are on the decline, and job security diminished. Now, however, teachers and school leaders have also experienced years of layoffs.
Diminishing resources for our schools continue and expectations that we lead the change to different and more rigorous curricula abound. What to focus on first? The quality of the experience our children receive must remain paramount. Relationships are central to the process. This is not a time for taking sides. We cannot allow this issue to be treated as a two sided right or wrong challenge, because if we do, there can be no resolve, just a tug of war. There is no simple answer to the question “Are Teachers Overpaid?” Rather than a question and an answer, consider the need to hold opposing truths. Those who resent public employee salaries and benefits, and those who support them, must come to an understanding. This reconciliation is essential. With the charge of changing minds, successful leaders must bring civility to the table and be willing to approach these challenges as open minded, inclusive, facilitators of change. Then, solutions can emerge. We must focus on the difficult work that is before us as navigators of this challenging decade.
Herald Tribune, March 20,2013
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