Friday, June 8, 2012

The Myth of Teachers

We have been brainwashed for the last 50 years that teachers are miracle workers and saints.
 It ain't so.

The recent election in Wisconsin is being touted by the Right as a referendum on the Obama Administration.  Folks on the Left are arguing that it is an indication of the draconian anti-Union world we will live in, if Romney is elected.

Both sides are wrong.

The election was about taxes.  A lot of folks have been talking about taxes, and a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject.  And everyone focuses on Federal Income Taxes to the exclusion of all else - just as the Financial Channels talk only about stock price.  But dividends are as important, if not more so, than stock price.  And State and Local taxes can outweigh Federal Taxes, for many folks.

For example, I have an average income for a typical American.  But last year, I paid about $5300 in Federal Taxes.  That's a lot of money, to be sure.  But my State and Property taxes were about $3000 last year, and that doesn't include things like sales taxes.

I live in a fairly low-tax State (Georgia).  But until recently, I had a home in New York.   The property taxes there, alone, approached $7000 a year, for a fairly modest house (by national standards).   If I was a New York Resident, I would have likely paid another $2000 in State Income Taxes as well.  And sales tax up there was at least 2-3% higher than down here.  I ended up selling my home in New York.  Even though it was "paid for," I could not afford the taxes.

All throughout the Northeast, the story is about the same.  High property taxes, high income taxes, high sales taxes - that dwarf a person's Federal Income Tax bill.  This is what the "tea partiers" are protesting about, not the elimination of the "Bush Era Tax Cuts".

Why are State and Local taxes so high?  Well the problem is twofold.   First, there are many unfunded mandates that the Federal Government forces off onto the States, such as Welfare and Medicaid.   And the States often foist the cost of these onto the Counties, which is even more unfair.  Some Counties in New York State are so poor, that almost everyone is on assistance, and the few people who actually work, are taxed to death.

The second problem is the public service unions.   Police and Firefighters don't seem to be the big problem, but prison guards and teachers in particular, make scandalous amounts of money, considering what they are doing for a living.   And as a result, costs of operating local governments has skyrocketed.  In my small community in Central New York, the School tax was about 50% of that $7000 tax bill.  So you can see that schools are a big part of the problem.

And it is a problem, when your property taxes exceed your Federal Taxes.   Many people, including myself, end up being forced out of our homes, when taxes escalate into the stratosphere.  Some ordinary working folks are startled to find they have five-figure property tax bills of $12,000 to $15,000 on houses they own free and clear - but have to sell, because their income can't support the taxes.

This is what drove the election in Wisconsin.  Not "family values" voters, or protest votes against Obama.  Because, plain and simple, there were not enough Republicans in Wisconsin to provide the lopsided election result.   Many of the people voting for Governor Walker were independents and Democrats, who were just tired of high taxes.   And while Governor Walker won by about 7 percentage points, the exit polls showed that the same people would vote for President Obama, by about 7 percentage points.   It was not about politics, it was about money, plain and simple.

Are teachers wildly overpaid?  Yes, and let me tell you why.   Many decades ago, teaching was a vastly underpaid profession.   Yes, it was scandalous.  It was a career that was mostly for women, and due to gender inequality, women were paid poorly.  No one got rich being a teacher.

(But then again, it is not a staggeringly difficult job, either.  You work nine months of the year, maybe six hours a day, with fall, winter, and spring breaks, federal holidays, and the like.  And you teach the same lesson plan, over and over again, through your career.  It is not rocket science, it is not splitting the atom.   Yes, it can be challenging at times - but most jobs are.   But do the challenges justify the wages?  I think not.)
The teachers unionized in the 1960's, and in the last four decades, they have gone on strike time and again, and forced local school boards to raise salaries and benefits.

How high?  Well, google it online.   Some teachers in New York State are making more than $100,000 to teach third grade.   Salaries are based on seniority and the number of advanced degrees you have, not on the complexity of the subject matter you teach.   So not surprisingly, there is a massive shortage of science and math teachers, as the "starting salary" for a teacher is very low, and there are better opportunities elsewhere.

If you download the data, it is pretty startling.  Most school districts have average salaries of $50,000 or more, plus benefits of $25,000.   Some average more than $60,000 with average benefits of $30,000 or more.  Is this high?  Given that the median household income in the United States is about $50,000 and the average household income in the United States is about $41,000, these are pretty hefty numbers.  If a husband and wife are both teachers, they can easily clear $100,000 a year, perhaps double that, by the time they retire.

(I live on a retirement island.   Some of the wealthiest people here are retired New York State school teachers.  They buy new cars every few years and have their homes remodeled.  Why not?  They are raking in 70% of their last years' salary, every single year.   People who have to fund their own retirements will never be able to approach those numbers.  But they will have to pay property taxes to pay for all those retired teachers - which in increase in number ever year).

But incomes alone fail to tell the whole story.  The benefits are nearly half of the pay, and include very good health insurance and some of the best retirement plans around.   Some teachers retire with 70% of their salaries in pensions, with COLA adjustments.   And bear in mind, this is for a job that comes with a three-month vacation every year - in addition to other vacations!

The teacher's unions have done well on two fronts.  First, they have perpetuated this myth of the tired, overworked, under-appreciated teacher, who is vastly underpaid.  Like the farmers, they put out bumper stickers that say, "If you can read this, thank a teacher!" - as if we would could only learn to read from a unionized teacher who has been to two-year MBA teacher school (a requirement that keeps a lot of talented people out of the profession).

Back in the 1980's, they used to run "public service" ads on the TV ("The More You Know!") featuring big-name stars imploring people to become teachers, as if it were a public service ("This time, you get to sit at the big desk!").  And of course, there are the plethora of movies and televisions shows that make teachers out to be saints.

So we all believe that teachers are getting a raw deal, and when they go on strike, we sympathize with them, and not the school board.  That is, until our tax bills come.

The problem with this "all teachers are Mother Theresa" model is, well, we all went to your school and thus we all know it isn't true.  I went to public school in the 1960's and 1970's, and back then, yes, teachers were underpaid.   And some were real saints.   But they weren't into teaching for the money.   But a few of them were real stinkers - I can think of a certain gym teacher who was a sadist, as well as a history teacher, also our town mayor, who was a real piece of work.   There were a few superstars, a few stinkers, and the rest were pretty average.  Were they worth high pay?  Maybe a few.  But not all.

But like in any union shop, they were all paid the same.  The union made it hard to fire bad teachers and harder still to reward good ones.   The good ones get disgusted and leave.  They can get jobs elsewhere that pay more.   The bad ones stay, knowing they have a sweet deal. So we pay through the nose for a bad education.

And today, the bad teachers are getting worse.  You read about it in the paper nearly every month - some slutty teacher sleeping with her 15 year-old student.  Ick.   And when they catch them, there is no remorse.  "We're in love!" she chirps, oblivious to the obvious - that she has breached her professional responsibility in a big way, and taken advantage of a very immature young man.

And, thanks to the union, the school board has a hard time firing her.   It sucks.

The second thing the unions have done is to tie the pay scale to how many advanced degrees you have.  Get a masters in education, you can teach.   Get a second masters in something else, you get a pay raise.  The more degrees, the more pay.    So many teachers spend the summer months pursuing more and more education, regardless of whether it will help them teach more effectively.  They are basically gaming the system and it is a game that pays off handsomely.

Think about it for a minute - what other profession automatically gives you a pay raise based on your educational level?  There are none.   You have to perform at a higher level to justify more pay, period.  But in teaching, you get another sheepskin, you get a boost in pay.  I makes no sense whatsoever.

And the problem for local governments is that if they try to rein in these rules, the teacher's strike.   And since we've all been brainwashed into thinking that teachers are "poor" we tend to feel sorry for them and take their side.  And of course, no one wants to see school cancelled, so the Board caves in, and just raises the school tax - or cuts programs to make ends meet.

Pretty soon, the school no longer offers art and music (the first victims to be cut) and then tries to consolidate classes, resulting in longer bus trips.   Everything is cut, class sizes  are increased, and education suffers.  Everything, of course, except football.  Cut that, and parents wake up and scream.

But eventually, two things happen.    First, in spite of cuts, taxes creep up to the point where people notice the burden.   Second, people start to notice that our young people basically can't read, write, or do basic math.  We are awash in a sea of dumb kids these days - with little or no education, learning basic skills in college, if they learn them at all.

Just as Unions ruined GM - and produced overpriced crappy cars - the unions have ruined teaching, producing overpriced and stupid graduates.  High pay and restrictive work rules mean that management has its hands tied.  Mediocrity and even low performance is rewarded.   Achievement and hard work are discouraged.   And no one is in charge - the inmates are running the asylum.

Teaching is a profession, not a union job.   And yes, Unions basically destroy the thing they try to protect.

The teachers could justify their pay, if the end product was stellar.  But in the years that teacher pay has risen, test scores have dropped.   The highest paid school districts have the worst results.  Washington, DC pays more per capita for education, and yet has the lowest test scores in the nation.   And I have friends who have worked in that system, and have reported to me firsthand, the cronyism, back-slapping, under-the-table dealings, and general malaise that is going on.   And you can't fix it, because no one can be fired - ever, ever!

How much should teachers be paid?  Well, as much as the market dictates.   How much would you take to teach fourth graders their multiplication tables and simple fractions, for about six hours a day, nine months of the year, with three months off in the summer, as well as numerous vacation days during the work year?

How much would you take to try to teach Geometry to high school students in the inner city?   Hmm.... you'd probably want more money.  The irony of it is, in most cases you'd make less teaching high school in the inner city than elementary school in the suburbs.   And your pay would be based on criteria that had little or nothing to do with your effectiveness as a teacher, as union work rules would prevent the School Board from awarding pay based on performance.

Teachers are great.  But they aren't saints or Mother Therese or Ghandi or the Dali Lama (actually, the Dali Lama isn't really the Dali Lama, if you bother to look into it).  In order to evaluate this situation rationally we need to cut through the fog of bullshit that the teacher's union (and teachers themselves) spew out.   We need to look at the numbers, and the numbers come down to this:  We can't afford to just pay people more because we feel sorry for them, or because they threaten to strike.   Eventually, as the saying goes, you run out of other people's money.

We need to take back control of our own schools from the unions and from ineffective school boards.   We are paying a lot of money and ending up with crappy educations.  We need to expose this myth of the teacher, in order to move on.

Note:  See also, The Myth of the Indispensable Man.  Farmers have also tried to jump on this "without us, where would you be?" bandwagon ("If you ate today, thank a Farmer!).   But of course, it is just another relatively low-skill job that is more about risk-taking than anything.  Where would I be without a farmer?  Out hiring another one.   It ain't rocket science.  And farmers don't make money, unless someone buys their crops.  Maybe the bumper sticker should read, "If you were able to pay back your farm loan, thank a consumer for buying your food!"   No one actor is indispensable in this country.

UPDATE:  This article cites the average salaries for teachers in the ten highest and ten lowest paid States.  What is interesting is that the spread between highest and lowest is not that far.

The highest are topped by New York, of course:
  1. New York: $77,957
  2. Massachusetts: $76,981
  3. Washington, D.C.: $75,810
  4. California: $72,842
  5. Connecticut: $72,013
  6. New Jersey: $69,330
  7. Alaska: $67,443
  8. Maryland: $66,482
  9. Rhode Island: $66,197
  10. Pennsylvania: $64,991
The lowest by more rural States:
  1. South Dakota: $42,025
  2. Mississippi: $42,744
  3. Oklahoma: $44,921
  4. Idaho: $45, 409
  5. Arizona: $45,477
  6. West Virginia: $45,977
  7. Utah: $46,042
  8. Louisiana: $46,733
  9. New Mexico: $47,163
  10. Missouri: $47,849
Note that even the lowest paid teachers are making close to the median national family income.   If both spouses work (and are teachers) they can easily be making over $100,000 a year.
Note also that this represents the average salaries, which includes new hires and those with many years of experience, or in New York, multiple degrees (pay in New York is tied to how many degrees you get).  So some are indeed making over $100,000 by themselves.
By retirement age, they are in the upper brackets, which determines their retirement pension.   No doubt some retirees are making more than working teachers.
The point is, these teachers - even in Missouri - are hardly "underpaid" for nine months of work.  A single salary along places them clearly in the middle-class.  Dual incomes would place them in the upper middle class.
The myth that teachers are "underpaid" is just that, particularly in places like New York.
And yes, New York has a high cost of living - in Manhattan.   Few teachers live in Manhattan.  And in upstate communities, (and by that I mean places like Utica, not Westchester) the cost of living is very low.  The staggering cost of government in such communities is driving people and jobs out of the state.