We’d all go to our graves happier if we never had to argue about teachers’ salaries again. Nowhere else are fallacious appeals to emotion and images of impoverished idealists who just want to help the kids thrown about so recklessly. When it comes time to ask whether educators are justly compensated for their pains, all elements of fiscal and logical sense are abandoned.
Whatever side an individual is on, they’re unlikely to deny that many public schools have a problem. Specifically, the problem of sucking, a quality tragically endemic to most things – buses, pools, restrooms – preceded by the word “public.” Apparently difficult to pin down with any degree of specificity, the blame is variously laid on sub-par instructors, low wages, funding issues and bad fish sticks. Though many solutions to the trouble have been proposed, one dull saw comes out over and over again: Why not just throw money at it?
Such a proposal is weak even in the best of times. Sure, money is great, but it’s nothing without the economist’s conceptual best friend, efficiency. Pointing the finger at inadequate teachers comes closer to the root of the issue. From this vantage point came Proposition 74, intended to increase the lead time before they descend into near-“unfirability.” This was, in your columnist’s opinion, a semi-decent stab at the matter, but it just so happened to die in the water along with the rest of the Arnold’s reforms.
In recent years, Dave Eggers, literary wonder boy and author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has weighed in on the issue, using Mother Jones, that quintessential organ of working man’s rage, as a mouthpiece. One article, “Reading, Writing and Landscaping,” rails against the alleged injustice of low teacher pay: “I recall seeing a number of my high school teachers, all with master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it’s a disgrace.”
Eggers hints at a solution involving the ratcheting up of salaries until they match whatever noneconomic definition he holds of a teacher’s worth. “We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000,” he says, “and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher’s.” I don’t know about you, but I’d trade the entirety of my primary and secondary education – fish sticks included – to avoid the grotesquerie of malocclusion.
The error in the novelist’s reasoning is actually an exceedingly common one. In stating that “we pay” certain professions certain amounts, he reveals a flawed conception of how prices are determined. I’ve had classmates “think” the same way, growing angry at the cruel world that has decided, perhaps for no reasons other than unadulterated greed and spite, to be so stingy with their childhood schoolteachers. In truth, the issue is not one of malice or heartlessness. Ask any economist, and they’ll tell you that the worth of an instructor is nothing more or nothing less than exactly what people are willing to pay for one.
If you believe that teachers are taking home too little of the green stuff, blame an excess of supply or a dearth of demand. The latter is unlikely, as more kids are entering school all the time. This leaves only a problem of supply: To put it bluntly, there are a lot of teachers out there. Thus, educational institutions need to not get into bidding wars over prospective employees. Envisioning the beloved English teacher who had you stand on your desks and recite “O Captain! My Captain!” mowing grass to pay the light bill may be discomfiting, but there it is.
The benefit of increasing the barrier to becoming a teacher is twofold. First, it would reduce the supply of them, thus raising the wages of those remaining. Second, it would act as a filter, leaving only the finest. After all, who wouldn’t like to see the best teachers they’ve had receive more money? I would, though I’d also like to see mediocre ones tending to my lawn. Don’t forget the fertilizer.
Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall hopes that one day, he too will have a job with summers off.