Schooled Reporting on education

Education economics 101

Education | Despite the prevailing narrative of impoverished teachers, most make a pretty good living
by Leigh Jones
Posted 10/10/18, 03:27 pm

Teachers are underpaid and overworked. At least that’s the prevailing narrative driving conversations about education funding across the country.

During teacher walkouts earlier this year in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, mainstream media reports painted sympathetic portraits of teachers forced to take second jobs to make ends meet. Last month, a cover story in Time magazine continued the trend by featuring three teachers struggling to survive on their supposedly meager salaries. One headline declared, “I have 20 years of experience, but I can’t afford to fix my car, see a doctor for headaches or save for my child’s future.”

A recent poll shows Americans sympathize with the teachers’ plight. Most say educators deserve more money, although they have less sympathy when they learn how much teachers actually make. The average U.S. teacher brings home nearly $59,000 a year. That’s only slightly below the current median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While they’re not getting rich, most teachers aren’t doing that bad, said Frederick M. Hess, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

“I think most people would think of $59,000 a year on average as a solid middle-class salary, especially given teachers have more-generous-than-usual healthcare and retirement benefits,” he told me. “That said, it’s certainly not a lot of money and it’s certainly not enough money for people who are really good at their job.”

Hess noted discrepancies in certain states do make it harder for teachers to live a legitimate middle-class lifestyle. Teacher pay in Oklahoma or West Virginia, for example, falls well below the national average. It’s also harder for teachers to cover their living expenses in high-cost areas, like New York, Washington, D.C., or just about anywhere in California.

But teachers also get perks that often go unmentioned in media accounts about pay. Retirement benefits can total between 8 and 10 percent of a teacher’s salary. The average civilian employee gets $1.78 in retirement benefits per work hour, while public school teachers get $6.22 per hour. And teachers only work about 190 days per year, while most professionals work closer to 240 days. That time off translates into a financial benefit for teachers with school-aged children because they don’t have to pay for additional child care after school, during the summer, and on holidays.

Robin Beck has worked as a teacher in Texas for 29 years. She told me she’s always thought of her job as the best of both worlds.

“It's a full-time job with a good salary, and I also had the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom when my kids were home because for the most part if they were home it allowed me to be home,” she said.

Beck makes about $64,000 a year. That’s only about $12,000 more than a first-year teacher in her district, but it’s more than double what she made starting out: $24,500.

Many of the media reports about teacher pay feature educators who have second or even third jobs to pay their bills. The Time story featured a teacher who even sold plasma twice a week because she needed the extra $60 to make her car payment.

Beck also has a side business, making gourmet cookies for birthdays, baby showers, and other special occasions. She started it 10 years ago to help pay for extra things her kids needed as they entered their high school and college years. But she never considered it necessary to make ends meet.

Hess told me stories of struggling teachers probably aren’t difficult to find among a national workforce of nearly 3.5 million educators, but that doesn’t make them the norm. It’s also important to look past the headlines to the details. The teacher in the Time story who can’t afford to fix her car makes $69,000 a year and lives in Raleigh, N.C. But she’s also a single mom with two kids.

Beck told me that while she’s always considered herself sufficiently compensated, she knows individual circumstances matter.

“It does depend on your situation, if you're a second income or if you’re a sole income,” she said. “If you’re a sole income and have kids, then that makes it harder. But that’s the way it is for any job.”

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Alan Hannon Associated Press/Photo by Richard Alan Hannon Bullet-resistant lock

Putting on a school security show

After school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, lawmakers across the country began talking about school safety. So did executives at companies that make safety features like door locks and metal detectors. School leaders are anxious to install so-called “hardening” equipment, but they don’t have the money to pay for it.

Now security industry lobbyists are rallying at state capitols to urge lawmakers to mandate hardening measures—and foot the bill. Spending on education security measures topped $2.5 billion in 2017. Analysts predict that will grow to $3 billion by 2019. Security companies and lawmakers who fear doing nothing say that’s money well spent. But is it?

Statistics show school shootings are still extremely rare, despite this year’s double tragedies. And even hardening proponents admit physical and technological security measures aren’t foolproof against a determined shooter. But they look effective, and they give officials something to tout when the next election cycle rolls around. That’s a win-win for security companies and politicians. Hopefully it won’t turn out to be a lose-lose for taxpayers and students. —L.J.

iStock/eugenesergeev iStock/eugenesergeev

Pay to wait to play

Day care is expensive no matter where you live. But in some cities, parents start shelling out money before a baby is even born, just to get on a waiting list. Fees can be as high as several hundred dollars, with no guarantee that a spot will open up. If the demand is so high, why don’t more day care centers open? Workers are in short supply. Meanwhile, more states are exploring the possibility of offering universal pre-K programs. Turns out getting them approved and funded may not be the biggest problem. —L.J.

Order in the court

The discrimination case against Harvard University will proceed as planned after a judge declined to dismiss the suit late last month. The trial starts Monday. Legal analysts say if it makes it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could strike down affirmative action policies at all U.S. universities. In a separate case filed Tuesday, a group claims the Ivy League school also shows bias in its prestigious legal journals by giving preference to women and racial minorities when selecting editors and articles to publish. —L.J.

Search for the truth

If you have time for a midweek long read, don’t miss this story about one mother’s fight to find out what happened to her son. Robert Tipton, a senior at High Point University in North Carolina, died in 2012 after reporting hazing and harassment from his fraternity brothers. Police classified his death as an accident, but his mother, Tennessee heiress Deborah Tipton, doesn’t buy it. She has put her considerable fortune to work trying to unravel the tangled tale. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 10/13/2018 01:02 am

    In my area, daycare workers get minimum wage or barely above it. Which might explain why workers are in short supply, and thus, why people might decide against opening a new daycare business. 

  •  John Cogan's picture
    John Cogan
    Posted: Sat, 10/13/2018 10:45 am

    My wife's teacher retirement covers our medical insurance premiums and a little more. Certainly nowhere near enough to live on. And at the rate of increase in insurance premiums - 8% next year - and no increase in retirement, it will not even cover that in a few years. Meanwhile, many new hires with Bachelor's degrees start at salaries way north of $59,000. Sorry, Leigh, teaching school is not all fun and games.

  •  Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 12:10 am

    I had a highschool shop teacher who built decks in the summer.  College and high school kds get summer jobs.  Just seems like a no brainer way to make more money.  By working a more average number of days per year.