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Nancy Smith

Is the 'Underpaid Teacher' Mostly a Myth?

October 4, 2018 - 6:00am

Twice during Tuesday night's debate Sen. Bill Nelson bemoaned the state of Florida teachers' salaries -- "they're $10,000 less than the national average for teachers," he said. 

It's all Scott's fault, Nelson exclaimed, because as soon as the governor took office in 2011, he cut $1.3 billion from the education budget. Never mind that Scott had to dig the state out of a $4 billion deficit at the time, or that the education budget now realizes a $4.5 billion increase in annualized revenue. Florida teachers have been swindled.

But, you know what? Not all experts in the field actually believe teachers have been swindled.

In spite of the union propaganda, the average teacher in America -- Florida included -- already enjoys market-level wages plus retirement benefits vastly exceeding those of private-sector workers, according to a pair of think-tank researchers, one in New York, the other in Washington, D.C. 

I Beg to DifferWhile the median teacher salary in Florida is $48,179, ranking the state at only 42nd, salaries vary widely by school district, with the $56,799 average in Broward landing much higher than the average $33,202 in Holmes. Nevertheless, no matter what county you live in, there's still much to recommend teaching in Florida in comparison with other professions. Why? Because so much goes along with it. 

Writing in the April 26 edition of City Journal, a quarterly magazine of urban affairs published by the Manhattan Institute, Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine present no-nonsense, unbiased conclusions about teacher pay after pouring over a wealth of statistical data.  

And it's not as if they overlooked administrative records in Florida

Florida records come up specifically when the researchers show teachers who leave the classroom are not prospering because they got out of teaching -- in other words, very few of those who leave the profession take jobs that pay more than their salary as teachers. Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation show that "teachers who change to non-teaching jobs take an average salary cut of about 3 percent." 

Note, I said cut

Here are some of the other points they make to explain their conclusion:

-- True, public school teachers earn lower salaries than the average college graduate. "... But in what other context do we assume that every occupation requiring a college degree should get paid the same? Engineers make about 25 percent more than accountants, but 'underpaid' accountants are not demonstrating in the streets."

-- "Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study. About half of teachers major in education, among the least-rigorous fields at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. ... Data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment indicate that students majoring in social science, humanities, and STEM fields not only start college with greater skills than education majors but also learn more along the way."

-- "The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzes the skill requirements of different jobs, assigning each a pay grade based on the federal government’s General Schedule (GS). At the lowest skill levels -- a GS-6 on the federal scale -- teachers earn salaries about 26 percent higher than similar white-collar workers. At GS-11, the highest skill level, teaching pays 17 percent less than other white-collar jobs. This explains how shortages can exist for specialized positions teaching STEM, languages, or students with disabilities, while elementary education postings may receive dozens of applications per job opening. ... After adjustment to reflect the time that teachers work outside the formal school day, the BLS data show that public school teachers on average receive salaries about 8 percent above similar private-sector jobs."

-- "... Even in seemingly underpaying states, pensions can more than make up the difference. Oklahoma teachers accrue new pension benefits each year, with a present value equal to 30 percent of their annual salaries. Subtract Oklahoma teachers’ own contribution of 7 percent, and employer-paid retirement benefits are worth 23 percent of annual salaries. By contrast, the typical private-sector employer contribution to a 401k plan amounts only to about 3 percent of employee pay."  

Oklahoma, incidentally, has the country's lowest median teacher salary at $42,040. Biggs and Richwine admit teachers in Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have good reason to be dissatisfied: their salaries rank near the bottom nationally, even after controlling for cost of living.

Here's a story that might surprise you from The Atlantic: Larry Cagle, who transplanted from Florida to Oklahoma, says, at 54, he makes $34,500 a year teaching critical-reading skills to public high-school students in Tulsa. “I do construction and lawn maintenance in the summer” to make ends meet, he said. “I moved here from Florida five years ago, and in Florida I made $25,000 a year more.” 

Teachers also are golden in tough times. For example, they actually gained ground in the depths of the recession because they neither had to worry about being laid off or see their pay cut. Workers in other professions had no such assurance. That will be true in all kinds of tough times.

Have a look at the recent New York Times story reporting that "public-employee retirement and health benefits  are bleeding dry state and local budgets. Neither the public nor teachers fully appreciate the cost of these programs."

Say Biggs and Richwine, "We forget the value of benefits when considering how teacher pay compares with private-sector work. And research suggests that teachers value deferred compensation less than upfront salary."

The two authors conclude "teachers enjoy widespread public favor, and though their desire for higher pay is understandable, no nationwide crisis of teacher compensation exists. Most teachers receive market-level salaries and generous retirement benefits ..."

For the 42 years I've lived in Florida, teachers -- who chose their profession same as I chose mine -- have been crying the blues over bad pay, the state's dismal national ranking, how much more they could be making waiting tables/selling insurance/driving a truck, how close they were to qualifying for Food Stamps.

I'm not saying teachers don't have a right to complain. My husband was a teacher, I understand the sentiment. What I am saying is, the governor wasn't responsible for it then, he isn't responsible for it now. Rick Scott has done no harm to Florida's teachers or students; in fact, he has strengthened education.

For Bill Nelson, teachers' pay is only a shiny object that ticks off a box in his Talking Points.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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