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The Myth of the Underpaid Teacher

San Diego Unified School District, the second largest school district in California, is perilously close to insolvency (this is the equivalent of bankruptcy for government services). A local online news outlet Voice of San Diego asked me to author an editorial as they focus on the dismal state of education. Below is my contribution.

The Myth of the Underpaid Teacher The Myth of the Underpaid Teacher

Since I took my 5 year old to the local government school to begin his formal education there's been a constant barrage about the plight of the teacher. "They are underpaid." "They are overworked." "They pay for their own supplies." Our local public school has a teacher appreciate week - yes an entire week. Parents are assigned to bring different foodstuffs each day capped off with a gift to which all parents are pressured to contribute cash to purchase. What I've always found puzzling is that the facts around the teaching profession seem to tell a vastly different story. While many people believe teachers are greatly underpaid, the compensation is quite substantial. After many months of demands I was able to secure payroll information for my local district DMUSD. The average teacher's direct cash compensation is $73,000 which exceeds the average entire household income for San Diego county residents of $60,103 (data from US census).

To gain a complete picture on teacher salary one must examine other financial benefits the largest being a lucrative retirement program. Every district employee gets a guaranteed pension which when they retire will pay them 80-90% of their highest salary every year until they die. They can also elect to accept less and their spouse can receive the benefit even if they die. That teacher making $73,000 today will get 80-90% of their final salary number which will be as high as $95,000. They are eligible for retirement beginning at the age of 55.

This retirement program is dramatically more generous than Social Security which most Americans receive. Current middle-age working social security recipients are slated to to receive only 76 cents for every dollar taken from their paycheck. However because teacher's unions negotiated a guaranteed pension amount they are receiving 10-20 times any contribution they make in future retirement payments. To pay this obligation 36% of their total salary needs to be put into an interest bearing account each month. Teachers are contributing 8% leaving 28% to be paid by taxpayers. If the monies are not set aside (which they are not) then they will not be able to grow until retirement meaning that even more money will be required to be paid later. Teachers receive a pension benefit that is worth conservatively $25,000 per year. Since teachers can retire 10-12 years earlier than Social Security allows payments start a decade or more earlier than US workers and teachers pay even less into their retirement accounts than SS recipients.

Unions have negotiated top of the line medical coverage for their teacher members. For DMUSD (which is not dissimilar from other districts) this means $8800 per year in health insurance. This is an additional payment by the district and does not come out of the paycheck as is common in most other jobs. Beginning at 55 retirees can begin receiving their retirement and still have the district pay for their full medical until age 65.

Also negotiated is a calendar work year that limits teachers to 181 work days. Most Americans work 245 days per year meaning teachers get nearly 13 weeks more vacation time than the typical US worker. The days teachers do work the day starts at 8 and ends at 2:30 during that time period there are mandated breaks, non-teaching period and lunch. Schools are prohibited from demanding that teachers work more than those hours. That's only 6.5 hours per day so if teachers are voluntarily working longer that would be moving them closer to the typical 8 hour work day.

With light work obligations, pay greater than the average household income, early retirement and luxurious pension payouts teaching is undeniably a well paid occupation. An economic analysis reveals that teachers at government run schools are overpaid by 52% when compared with comparably skilled workers at corporations. This translates to taxpayers paying an additional $120 billion per year.

Some may brand me as anti-teacher for revealing these facts about teacher compensation. I married a teacher so if anything I have a soft spot for teachers. It should be noted that administration personnel (what they call in education lingo 'non-certified') enjoy similar economic benefits. I emphasize teachers because too often the myth of the underpaid and overworked teacher is used to deflect scrutiny from the largest expense of running a school - personnel costs. Many scour tiny budget items looking to squeeze pennies from small sources while the true driver of expenses: employees and benefits are ignored.

In the next year, personnel costs (teachers and administrators) are slated to be 102% of the entire SDUSD school budget. As in most organizations, human capital is the biggest expense and reconciling the budget means a blunt analysis of salaries and benefits using an unemotional factual analysis. Teachers deserve no better treatment than a janitor or nurse or secretary or administrator. Each is supporting a family being paid for by other taxpayers. Undoubtedly, the most unpleasant part of managing an organization is implementing terminations, pay reductions, and benefit cuts. Yet, it is the only way to achieve financial rationalization for the district. To date, the school board has not shown the leadership to make such decisions and for that inaction they will likely lose their job. Whoever eventually is appointed to lead the district in its own austerity program will have to adjust personnel costs, yes, even for teachers.

-- MR

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