It’s a commonly accepted belief that public school teachers are underpaid. Last month in a visit to Ann Arbor, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even called for schools to figure out how to double teacher salaries in order to attract and keep top-tier talent. But a report issued last week by the Heritage Center for Data Analysis questions the conventional wisdom and finds that, instead of being underpaid, people entering the teaching profession actually make one and a half times what they would have in other lines of work.
While it is true teachers earn less than non-teachers with similar academic credentials, this wage gap disappears once objective measures of cognitive ability are taken into account. The strongest evidence that teachers are earning a fair wage comes from people who enter and exit the teaching field. According to Heritage:
Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent. Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.
And those are just the effects on salary. When you add in the generous pension and health care packages and job security enjoyed by public school employees, teachers’ total compensation is “52% higher than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”
The report is based on national data, but a similar story is playing out in Michigan, where the average teacher salary has risen for 13 consecutive years, despite the state’s woeful economic climate. Inflation has kept those increases to a modest 2 percent gain in real terms, but benefits have risen by 37 percent, even after adjusting for inflation since 2000. The continuing rise in total compensation helps explain why many districts will receive hundreds of applications for open positions — something we shouldn’t see if teachers really are underpaid.