I will never forget what the late Jeanne Lucas, teacher, administrator, and state senator, said at a teacher rally I attended in Raleigh in the 70’s. She said of our teachers, “Politicians want Tiffany crystal at K-Mart prices.” Those words have never been truer than they are today for overworked and underpaid teachers. Just take a look at teacher salaries.
According to the National Education Association’s Research Department, the most recent data show that teacher salaries increased about 30 percent from a decade ago. When you factor in inflation, that increase plummets to 3.4 percent. Really, that is the value of teachers for the last 10 years! That is distressing, and for me, it is just plain sad. I will tell you why that’s the case.
Almost twenty years ago, I left teaching--kicking and screaming--to become the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina affiliate of NEA. In that role, I initiated a campaign for national average salaries for North Carolina teachers by the year 2000. NCAE partnered with Governor Jim Hunt who was seeking a fourth term as Governor. He was appalled at what had happened to teacher salaries in the state. As a result, he ran for governor on the issue of higher standards for teachers and their profession coupled with much higher salaries. The public supported him overwhelmingly. Together, the union and the Governor created a four-year plan, brought in a coalition of business and education individuals and groups, and convinced the Legislature to invest over a billion dollars to implement the plan. The result was that North Carolina moved from 42nd in the nation to 22nd in average teacher salary. Leadership matters, and union/management/government collaboration matters as well.
Now, here is the sad part. Despite our concerted effort, North Carolina now ranks 51st in the nation in teacher raises over the last decade. The state’s policymakers have increased salaries only 12 percent over a ten year period. When you factor in inflation, Tar Heel teachers are making less money today then they were in 2002. That is shameful in a state that has always prided itself on great public schools. The Republicans control all branches of North Carolina government now. Will they see this as an opportunity to take leadership in strengtening schools and supporting teachers or an opportunity to undermine and eventually destroy the public schools of the state?
North Carolina may have the worst record, but no state has paid its teachers fairly, especially in light of the new and higher standards that are expected of them. We expect all teachers to have all students score above average on standardized tests. We expect all teachers to be evaluated significantly on those tests scores. In some states, we expect teachers whose students are not tested in the subject matter they teach to be evaluated on the test scores of other teachers, and no, I am not making that up. We expect teachers to work long hours, sacrifice time from their families, and be available 24/7, but we are not willing to have everyone--including the wealthy--pay their fair share to help schools meet those high expectations.
I could not help but be amazed at a recent article on the salaries of Major League Baseball (MLB) players. Did you know that in 1967, the minimum salary for a MLB player was $6,000 and the average was $19,000? Now, let’s fast forward to the first decade of this century. The increase in the minimum has jumped over 100 per cent to a high of $480,000. The average salary has jumped over 90 per cent to a high of $3,213,479. Now I put this group of unionized employees in the category of the rich. I hope these wealthy players would readily agree to pay more taxes to raise the salaries of their former teachers. Don’t get me started on the increased salaries of corporate executives. That data should embarrass us all.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge recent reports from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Both reports call for higher standards for those who are entering the profession. I totally support all those recommendations. It is much smarter to attend to quality control on the front end rather than spending time harassing all teachers in order to get at the two percent who need to be dismissed.
I urge my friends at AFT and NEA not to be afraid to take on teacher salaries at the national level, a cause that is equally as deserving of union resources, messaging, and organizing. “High Standards and High Salaries” is a campaign worthy of union/management/government collaboration. If the Department of Education can create incentives for states to do teacher evaluations, why can’t they create incentives for fair wages? Secretary Duncan speaks eloquently of the need for teachers to be compensated like the professionals they are, but more powerful, would be his use of regulations to accomplish that goal.
We have done an injustice to the teaching profession. No imposition of higher standards will be enough to create world class teachers for all children without paying world class salaries.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.