People routinely nod agreement when they hear someone say “our youth are our future.” The implication is that the care and education of our youth should be one of our nation’s highest priorities. Odd, then, that there appears to be hostility towards many of those charged with educating them, our public school teachers.
One possible reason for this hostility is the widespread view, encouraged by the mass media, that public school teachers, especially unionized ones, are vastly overpaid. This view may be widespread but it is also wrong. Here are two key findings from a recent Economic Policy Institute study:
- public school teacher inflation-adjusted weekly earnings have been falling since the mid-1990s.
- the public school teacher wage gap—the gap between what teachers make in weekly wages compared with similarly educated and experienced workers—has grown since the mid-1990s, reaching -17 percent in 2015.
The figure below shows wage trends for three groups of full-time workers (age 18-64): all workers, college graduates (not including public school teachers), and public school teachers (elementary, middle, and secondary teachers). The average weekly wage (inflation adjusted) for all workers increased from $891 to $1,034 over the period 1996 to 2015. Over the same period, the average weekly wage for college graduates (excluding public school teachers) rose from $1,292 to $1,416. In contrast, the average weekly wage for public school teachers fell $30 per week, $1,122 to $1,092. As the study’s authors conclude: “In 2015 the teacher wage disadvantage compared with other college graduates was 22.8 percent, or $323 per week—substantially higher than the 13.1 percent disadvantage in 1996.”
Significantly, as the following figure reveals, in no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates.
Of course, both college graduates and public school teachers include people of different ages, races/ethnicities, gender, marital status, and educational levels, who also live in different geographic regions. Therefore, the authors of the study used Current Population Survey data to make regression-adjusted estimates of relative teacher earnings that held these various characteristics constant. They found, as illustrated below, that the adjusted teacher wage gap grew from ‑5.5 percent to ‑17.0 percent over the period 1979 to 2015. In other words, teachers are, as of 2015, making 17 percent less than non-teachers with similar characteristics. The figure also shows that this gap differs greatly by gender and that female teachers have suffered a greater deterioration over the period than male teachers, although male teachers continue to suffer the greatest overall wage gap.
Not surprisingly, unionization does help, but only to narrow, not overcome, the wage gap. The next figure shows that “teachers not covered by collective bargaining faced a larger wage penalty than teachers who benefit from collective bargaining. Teachers without collective bargaining had a teacher wage penalty 7.0 percentage points greater than teachers with collective bargaining, on average, from 1996 through 2015. Both groups of teachers, however, faced a substantial and growing teacher wage penalty over the last two decades.”
Finally, the authors, using different data, broadened their study to include benefits. In many cases, public school teachers traded, either by necessity or desire, wage gains for improvements in health care and retirement benefits. Although public school teachers do enjoy, on average, better benefit packages than other comparable professionals, the basic conclusion of the study remains the same when considering overall compensation levels. While the compensation gap between public school teachers and similar professionals is narrower than the wage gap, as the next figure illustrates, a gap still remains and continues to grow wider.
In sum, public school teachers are significantly underpaid relative to other college educated workers with similar skills and background. This makes no sense. If we truly believe our youth are our future than we should want to attract and retain the best people possible to teach them. One doesn’t do that by underpaying.