Increasing Teacher Pay from On High Is Simply Bad Policy
Are teachers overpaid or underpaid? It’s as old a debate in education as whether Han Solo shot first is for Star-Wars fans. It’s incredibly hard to answer the question, because it requires taking into account a large number of factors that get glossed over every time the argument arises. The first and most important consideration, of course, is the quality of the teacher. Better teachers should get paid more, but trying to figure out what makes a “better” teacher is incredibly difficult.
But what we also should take into account (but almost never do) are the conditions of the labor market in which teachers work. If you pay the same amount to a teacher in St. Louis that you do a teacher in Nodaway County, it’s very likely that you’ve underpaid the St. Louis teacher and overpaid the Nodaway County teacher, even though they got the same amount. Let me explain why.
There are vast differences in the cost of living and average salaries of workers across the state. Take Shannon County for example. Located just south of the Mark Twain national forest, Shannon County is one of the poorest counties in the state (It also happens to be where my wife’s grandparents call home). The median household income in 2011 was roughly $20,000 less than the state average, at $25,684. The average teacher in the county makes over $35,000, more than 135% of the median household income. On top of that, teachers receive a 14.5% match on retirement contributions and employer-paid health care. All of this for 180 days of work—that is, unless they use their 10 to 12 built-in sick/personal days.
What would happen if we gave these teachers a raise? Would paying teachers an extra $2,000 or $3,000 and moving them to 140 or 150 percent of median household income attract new teachers or retain current teachers? That’s unlikely. They’re already far above their neighbors. What’s worse, it would strain the already limited stream of money that the district has to fund its schools. Small benefit, high cost, bad policy.
As I pointed out yesterday on the blog, teacher pay should reflect local economic markets. The map at the top of this post shows the average salary of teachers in each Missouri county. The color indicates how the salary compares to the median household income of the county. An index can be thought of as a percentage, so in the counties shown in orange, teacher salaries range between 75% and 99% of median household income. In many areas of the state with “low” teacher salaries, the wages are actually high compared to the median household income.
Because of all of this, a statewide increase in teacher salaries (like the ones the MSTA calls for) would mean paying teachers in some areas of the state above what their local market demands. It would push districts that are already financially strapped to take unpopular measures such as holding wages down for more senior teachers or increasing class sizes by hiring fewer teachers.
Today Missouri requires all school districts to start teachers at a salary of at least $25,000, and teachers with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience must earn at least $33,000. Increasing the minimum teacher salary to, say, $30,000 would have little effect on overall teacher pay. According to a study by the Missouri State Teachers Association, the average starting teacher salary in Missouri is $33,012.
Still, many school districts—poor, rural districts—would be affected by an increase in the state-required minimum wage for teachers. Thus, this type of mandate would disproportionately affect those districts most strapped for cash. It would mean they could hire fewer teachers because they have less money to spend.
Increasing teacher salaries may be a noble goal, but the decision of whether to do so should be made by local school boards taking into account local conditions, not by politicians in Jefferson City.