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The Myth of the Underpaid Teacher Lives On

 Yet another “study” showing how poorly teachers are paid has surfaced.

Well, it’s a new school year and there is much tumult in the world of public education. Common Core battles, testing opt-outs, and litigation about school choice and teacher work rules dot the landscape. But with all the uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that there is one thing we can count on in late summer: a new bogus study showing that public school teachers are woefully underpaid.

This year’s entry doesn’t disappoint. “The teacher pay gap is wider than ever,” subtitled “Teachers’ pay continues to fall further behind pay of comparable workers” is a 29-page report released by the Economic Policy Institute, whose mission is “to inform and empower individuals to seek solutions that ensure broadly shared prosperity and opportunity.” If this were an honest statement, the word “opportunity” would be followed by “as long as the solutions are in sync with the union party line.” You see, EPI is nothing more than a union front group whose board includes a rogue’s gallery of Big Labor honchos: AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry, American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, National Education Association’s Lily Eskelsen-García, et al.

And not only do the teachers unions have strong board representation, they donate heavily to EPI. According to the latest labor department reports, 2015 saw NEA present a $250,000 gift to EPI, only to be outdone by the smaller AFT, which kicked in $300,000 to the organization.

The study itself is just what you would expect: loads of numbers that are supposed to make people think that teachers are essentially little more than impoverished serfs, valiantly slaving away for pennies. Among the report’s claims:

  • Teachers’ weekly wages are 23 percent lower than those of other college graduates.
  • For public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ‑8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ‑17.0 percent in 2015.
  • Regardless of experience, teacher wage gap expanded for female teachers.

Needless to say, the unions solemnly wrote about the report as if it were “news,” with NEA blogger Tim Walker suggesting that all teachers get a raise. And as day follows night, the media jumped on board. The relentless and reliably-unreliable Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss dutifully posted the whole report with the title, “Think teachers aren’t paid enough? It’s worse than you think.The Fiscal Times sounded alarm bells with “Teacher Pay Hits Record—but Not a Good One.”

But like most similar studies, EPI’s doesn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison. It omits a few things like the simple fact that teachers work 6-7 hour days and 180 days a year, whereas the study’s “comparable workers” put in an 8-9 hour a day and work 240-250 days a year. (Yes, yes, I know teachers take work home, but so do many other professionals who don’t get summers off.) Also, unlike private-sector workers, most teachers have extensive health benefits for which they typically pay very little, if anything. Furthermore, as University of Missouri professor Michael Podgursky points out, the pension benefits for teachers, which they only pay a tiny portion of – the taxpayer getting hosed for the rest – add greatly to a teacher’s total compensation. (The EPI report actually alludes to this, but buries it on page 14; more on this in a bit.)

Perhaps the most honest and well-researched study done on teacher pay, including the time-on-the-job and benefits factors, was done in 2011 by Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In their report, they destroy the teacher union-perpetuated myth of the under-compensated teacher. Their study, in fact, found that teachers are actually paid more than private-sector workers.

They make the case that workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs “receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.” Additionally, when retiree health coverage for teachers is included, “it is worth roughly an additional 10 percent of wages, whereas private-sector employees often do not receive this benefit at all.”

Biggs and Richwine conclude that after taking everything into account, “teachers actually receive salary and benefits that are 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”

Back to the EPI study. On page 14 of the report, it acknowledges,

Our analysis of relative teacher pay thus far has focused entirely on the wages of teachers compared to other workers. Yet benefits such as pensions and health insurance are an increasingly important component of the total compensation package. Teachers do enjoy more attractive benefit packages than other professionals; thus, our measure of relative teacher wages overstates the teacher disadvantage in total compensation. The different natures of wages and benefits should be kept in mind, as it is only wages that may be spent or saved. Thus, the growing wage penalty is always of importance.

So in essence, the authors of the study come clean in this paragraph and admit that their stress on wages alone overstates the real disparity in pay. The “spent or saved” comment is especially ridiculous. Pension earnings are indeed “saved” for the future. Whatever. It’s obvious that this report is meant to tug at the heartstrings, build righteous indignation and provide local teachers unions with ammo for collective bargaining battles with school boards.

For an honest assessment of teacher pay, stick with the Biggs-Richwine study. But if one is looking for skewed and incomplete data as fodder for a splashy headline or an emotional plea, the dishonest and self-serving union-sponsored EPI report fills the bill beautifully.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Reversing American Decline

Across broad ideological lines, Americans now foresee a dismal, downwardly mobile future for the country’s middle and working classes. While previous generations generally did far better than their predecessors, those in the current one, outside the very rich, are locked in a struggle to carve out the economic opportunities and access to property that had become accepted norms here over the past century.

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This deep-seated social change raises a profound dilemma for business: Either the private sector must find a way to boost economic opportunity, or political pressure seems likely to impose policies that will order redistribution from above. It is doubtful the majority of Americans will continue to support an economic system that seems to benefit only a relative few. Looking at our unequal landscape, one journalist recently asked: “Are the bread riots finally coming?”

By 2020, according to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs, with earnings that would put them below the poverty line to support a family of four. The combination of high debt and low wages has some projections suggesting millennials may have to work until their early 70s.

But our new pessimism and widening class divide stems not only from the concentration of wealth and power, but from the persistence of weak economic growth.

Neo-populist groups on the left and the right have risen to employ political pressure to try and assure a decent quality of life. Ideologically robust liberals, like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have emerged as national symbols of a movement in which cities have pushed strong moves like a $15 minimum wage (Seattle) and benefits for workers. Ironically, these are often the same places where wealth is most intensely concentrated and where the middle class has shrunk as a newly dominant, Obama-aligned Clerisy of public employee unions, government officials, academics and artists has gained the preponderance of political power.

The same sense of limited opportunity that drives the new progressives also motivates the popularity of libertarian and Tea Party activism on the right. Instead of state intervention, these groups have been attracted to the notion that removing barriers to economic growth will increase social mobility more effectively than redistribution by political fiat.

But these economic arguments that could generate more widespread support have been married with increasingly unpopular, often backward-looking social agendas that have allowed the Clerisy to portray them as fringe movements.

This has allowed Obama, de Blasio and others shape a new conversation centered on inequality, rather than growth. Oddly enough, it’s a model that relies on Europe’s example even as the continent’s own economic prospects appear dismal, and mainstream political parties there are registering their lowest levels of popular support in decades.

Though it can help some in the short run, there is little reason to think that more redistribution by the state would improve material conditions over the long term for our working and middle classes, let alone expand them. Rather, it might end up expanding our underclass of technological obsolete and economically superfluous dependents. The 50-year War on Poverty, for example, has achieved few gains since the 1960s despite fortunes spent. Instead, the only significant gains in poverty reduction, at least among those working, have come when both the economy and the job market expand, as they did during the Reagan and Clinton eras.

Clearly, as both those Presidents recognized, the best antidote to poverty remains a robust job market.

Yet even this progress has not helped the poorest of the poor, many of whom are marginally, if at all, connected to the workplace. Since 1980, the percentage of people living in “deep poverty”-with an income 50% below the official poverty line — has expanded dramatically. Despite now spending $750 billion annually on welfare programs, up 30% since 2008, a record 46 million Americans were in poverty in 2012.

It is possible that, as Franklin Roosevelt warned, a system of unearned payments, no matter how well intended, can serve as “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” and reduce incentives for recipients to better their own lives.

The activist welfare-based philosophy, following the European model, would likely include not only historically poor populations, but part-time workers, perpetual students, and service employees living hand to mouth, who can make ends meet largely only if taxpayers underwrite their housing, transportation and other necessities. This trend towards an expansive welfare regime could be bolstered by our falling rates of labor participation — now at its lowest level in at least 25 years, and showing no signs of an immediate turnaround.

And the European model shows little evidence of the benefits of redistribution given the persistently high rates of unemployment, particularly among the young, across most of the EU; indeed much of the continent’s youth are widely described as a “lost generation.” Pervasive inequality and limited social mobility have been well-documented in larger European countries, including France, which has one of the world’s most evolved welfare states. It is even true in Scandinavia, often held up as the ultimate exemplar of egalitarianism, but where the gap between the wealthy and other classes have increased in Sweden four times more rapidly than in the United States over the past 15 years.

To be sure, progressive, or even ostensibly socialist approaches can ameliorate the worst impact of economic decline on lower-income people. But under left-wing governments — Socialists in France, New Labour in Britain and the Obama Administration in the U.S. — class chasms have increased markedly under leaders who insist their policies will reduce inequality. Much the same has occurred in countries with more conservative approaches.

In the absence of a focus on growing economies more rapidly and broadly, both political philosophies fall short.

But maintaining the prospect of upward mobility is central to the very idea of America. For generations, the surplus working class populations of the world have flocked here in search of opportunities unavailable in their home countries. In contrast, there remain few places for America’s aspirational classes to go.

Fortunately, the capitalist system, particularly under democratic control, allows for the possibility of reform. Take Great Britain, the homeland of the industrial revolution. In response to mass poverty and serious public health challenges during the 19th century, social reform movements led by the clergy and a rising professional class organized to address the most obvious defects caused by economic change. It is one of history’s great ironies that at the very time that Karl Marx was composing Das Kapital in the library at the British museum, life was rapidly improving for the British working class. Far from having “exhausted its resources” and precipitating all-out class war, the inequality so evident in mid-19th Century Britain began to narrow through natural economic forces and the growing power of working-class organizations. The working-class revolution in Britain, which Friedrich Engels insisted “must come,” never did.

Similarly, the Depression, brought on by what Keynes called “a crisis of abundance,” was addressed more by measures to spur mass demand than relying on redistribution. The New Deal, and then the Second World War, expanded government support for public works, education and housing, as well as infrastructure and research and development. Programs enacted then and after the war also encouraged widespread property ownership.

This state expansion was generally aimed at increasing economic opportunity-for example, by developing technologies that could stimulate new industrial sectors, new firms, and create new wealth. Today’s, on the other hand, is simply transferring income from one group to another.

Whatever criticisms can be made of mid-century America, during this period the nation transformed what had been a strongly unequal country into one where the blessings of prosperity were more broadly shared. In the 1950s, the bottom 90% held two-thirds of the wealth here. Today they barely claim half.

Sparking beneficial economic growth requires a shift in priorities, and thus presents a challenge to the new class order dominated by Wall Street, the tech oligarchy and their partners in the Clerisy. It is not enough merely to blame the so-called 1%, but to shift the benefits of growth away from the current hegemons, notably in the very narrow finance and high-tech sectors, and towards those involved in a broad array of productive enterprise.

The American economy’s capacity for renewal remains much greater than widely believed. Rather than a permanent condition of slow growth, the United States could be on the cusp of another period of broad-based expansion, spurred in part by its rapidly growing natural gas and oil production — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as cheap and abundant natural gas is luring investment from manufacturers from Europe and Asia, and providing good-paying American jobs.

This, along with growth in manufacturing, could spark better times for the middle class, as would the re-igniting of single-family home construction.

If America really wants to confront its growing class divide, it needs to spark such broad-based economic growth, rather than simply feathering the nests of the already rich, privileged and well-connected.

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About the Author:  Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. This story originally appeared at New York Daily News and is republished here with permission.