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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 mouths are.

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 $90,000?"

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 teacher slots.

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 professionals."

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 Dick Meister


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