WANT BETTER SCHOOLS? RAISE TEACHER PAY
By Dick Meister
Just about everyone says they want to improve the nation's public
schools. OK, but they'll have to start putting their money where their
For starters, they'll have to pay teachers more. None of the obstacles to
improvement are more evident than the ever-growing shortage of qualified
teachers in the face of ever-growing numbers of students. And that shortage
is caused primarily by low pay.
The average annual salary offered college graduates going into teaching
this year was only about $26,000, ranging from as little as $19,000 in North
Dakota to $33,000 in Alaska. Graduates taking engineering jobs, for
instance, averaged almost $43,000. The average for graduates who went into
the field of computer science was $41,000. For those in business
administration it was $35,000, in accounting $34,000 and in sales and
marketing about $33,000.
Experienced teachers didn't fare any better in comparison with those
doing other white-collar professional work. The average U.S. teacher has a
masters degree and 16 years experience, yet made just a little more than
$39,000 a year. Veteran lawyers averaged about $72,0001 engineers $64,000,
computer systems analysts $63,000, accountants $46,000.
Even the veteran teachers' pay, as the New York Times reported, was
"just a fraction of the annual bonus received by many thirty-somethings
on Wall Street."
And, the Times added, "What signal does it send about teaching, many
educators say, when a 45-year-old teacher with a masters degree earns
$45,000 a year and a 25-year-old out of law school often starts at
An appalled business analyst in San Francisco noted that "we hire
kids off the street to fix our computers, no degree at all, and they make
more than $45,000. A lot more."
It's no wonder most of the country's major school districts surveyed this
year didn't have nearly enough qualified applicants to fill their empty
As President Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers said,
"Salaries must keep pace with other professions that are luring people
away from the classroom. Teaching is enormously gratifying, and many more
would make it their career choice if they felt teachers were treated like
The need for more teachers is great and growing. The U.S. Department of
Education estimates that the nation, which presently has 2.7 million public
school teachers, will need two million more over the next decade because of
increased enrollments caused by the so-called baby boomlet and retirements
by members of the aging teacher ranks.
It isn't just more teachers who need to be recruited, but better
teachers, notes Feldman. She says it's clear "you're not going to do
that without increasing salaries."
In the meantime, school districts are being forced to hire teachers who
lack proper credentials simply to try to fill vacancies. In San Francisco,
for instance, about 500 of the district's 4,000 teachers are either still
studying for their teaching credentials or are classified as non-academic
experts in their subject area without regard to whether they have any
teaching skills. That's typical of what's happening nationwide.
Decent competitive pay isn't all that's lacking. Class sizes generally
are unwieldy, for example, and school facilities generally in poor
condition. The already underpaid teachers, furthermore, often must spend
their own money for essential classroom supplies that school districts
cannot or will not provide.
I know that first-hand. Like most San Francisco teachers, my wife Gerry
spends anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a year for such basics as paper,
pencils, chalk, tape, paper clips, staplers, thumb tacks, rubber bands,
daily newspapers, posters, books, photocopying.
Gerry's been doing it for more than 30 years as a high school teacher
and, like most others, doing janitorial and maintenance work as well. Her
school has 125 teachers, 2,500 students -- and five janitors. She and her
students do much of the cleaning themselves, a circumstance that is hardly
unique to San Francisco's schools.
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention: Many of the school's classroom clocks don't
work, teachers often must wait several days for burned out light bulbs to be
replaced, and can't regulate the often too cold or too warm temperatures in
their rooms and in some cases can't even open their windows wide enough to
provide adequate venilation.
There's even more: Given the lack of janitors, you can imagine -- but
shouldn't -- the foul condition of the rest rooms in Gerry's school and most
others in the district.
In the business world, as my wife says, the pay and working conditions
that are commonplace in most U.S. schools "would be totally
unacceptable." Teachers, however, have no choice but to abandon their
profession or accept what's been imposed on them by a society that claims to
value their work above all other.
_______________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a
freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor and education issues
for more than four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000