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Teacher Pay Still Losing Ground

As a new report examines the teaching penalty, media myths about "overpaid" educators persist.

By Cindy Long

When Jason Hubler, a fifth-grade teacher from Jefferson County, Kentucky, heard a Fox News host claim families making $250,000 a year aren’t rich, he was floored.

“Maybe at the end of my career I might earn a third of that. But yet teachers are considered overpaid?” he asks in astonishment.

Hubler is weary of all the news reports claiming that overpaid, greedy teachers are to blame for budgets shortfalls and are simply unwilling to sacrifice. He works at least 10 hours a day and many weekends, has a master’s degree, and pays for extra supplies for his classroom out of his own pocket. He’s even used his own money to rebuild computers so everyone in his class has access to technology.

After 12 years in the classroom, Hubler makes $50,000 a year. He feels he puts in more than his fair share, and yet, when he compares his level of education and years of experience on the job with those in the private sector, he finds a discernable difference in pay.

Turns out Hubler is right, and the pay difference is more than discernable.

According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), public school teachers in 2010 earned about 12 percent less than comparable workers—a pay gap that’s been persistent for the past two decades and that accelerated between 1996 and 2000, an economic boom time for other workers.

“The teacher pay penalty is much larger than it was 50 years ago,” says Lawrence Mishel, co-author of The Teaching Penalty: An Update Through 2010. “And it grew over the last 15 years because teachers didn’t benefit from the late 1990s boom in wages that other workers experienced.”

With so much attention on how teachers are faring during this recession, it’s easy to forget that nobody complained when they didn’t receive the big wage increases the private sector enjoyed during the heyday of real estate bubbles, dotcom booms, and economic prosperity. It was a period of low unemployment and the only period of rapid pay growth over the past 40 years, yet none of it trickled down to educators.

Pay No Attention to What’s Behind the Curtain

Renee Moore has been a tax-paying, hard-working classroom teacher in Mississippi for more than 20 years, and she resents the notion that her state pension is a gift from other taxpayers.

“A hefty chunk of our own paychecks goes into that retirement fund every month and year,” she says. “That's in addition to the money we pay into Social Security and taxes like almost everyone else—everyone except those who make so much money, they barely pay taxes at all. Teacher pension packages breaking the state budget? Hardly.”

Moore wants to know why, instead of picking on teachers, other taxpayers aren’t accusing the wealthy of shirking their fair share.

That’s because right-wing politicians don’t want people looking at the very wealthy. In a strategy of divide and conquer, they’d rather pit private sector workers against public employees than have them pay attention to the fact that wages in both the public and the private sector have fallen far behind gains in U.S. productivity. They also don’t want middle class workers to know that the top 5 percent of Americans hold almost 65 percent of the country’s wealth.

The Rich Get Richer

Between 1989 and 2010, U.S. productivity grew by 62.5 percent, but wages only grew by 12 percent for both private sector and public workers. When the recession hit—with its foreclosures, falling housing values, and skyrocketing employment—it devastated the net worth of millions of Americans. But the wealthy kept getting wealthier.

“Typical workers and families continue to struggle against high rates of unemployment, stagnating wages, and foreclosure, while the wealthy have enjoyed significant gains in the stock market, and benefited from corporate profits,” says Economic Policy Institute economist Sylvia Allegretto.

And right-wing politicians like New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie are exacerbating the situation by rewarding the wealthy with tax breaks.

“You know, at some point there has to be parity,” Christie said in a speech last year. “There has to be parity between what is happening in the real world, and what is happening in the public sector world.”

Some in New Jersey are questioning whether Christie knows the definition of parity.

The average salary for public school teachers in his state is $67,000. But Christie has rewarded millionaires by extending income tax breaks for those earning over $1 million dollars.

At a town hall meeting last month, Christie said that the “most important thing to student success is the quality of the teacher in front of the classroom.”

But how do you attract the best and brightest to classrooms when you continue to chip away at their salaries and silence their voices at the bargaining table?

“You can’t on one hand say that an effective teacher is the most important thing in a school and on the other hand not pay attention to the pay and working conditions those teachers need to be effective in their profession,” says EPI’s Mishel.

What it boils down to is what people believe a teacher’s value is to society.

While Wall Street hands out millions in salaries and bonuses to attract top talent, parents at Jason Hubler’s school back in Kentucky accuse teachers of being overpaid if they’re seen driving a convertible.

“It’s disheartening,” he says.

Learn more about how NEA advocates for professional educator salaries by visiting


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