A teachable moment

March 7, 2011

Is a crisis in education less important than a crisis of our capital markets? At the end of 2008, the federal government took aggressive measures to ensure that a supposed complete financial meltdown would be averted by purchasing troubled assets and restoring liquidity to the largest banks in America. Only a few months following the bailout of these banks, many of them paid out healthy bonuses to the same executives responsible for causing the situation to unfold.

Today, in Wisconsin, we watch teachers fight to ensure they receive a five figure salary. According to The Atlantic, the average salary for teachers in Wisconsin is slightly worse than the national average with starting salaries of $32,642 and a maximum with a master’s degree of $60,036. Meanwhile, the average Wall St. bonus, not salary, fell to a measly $128, 530. Goldman Sachs paid $431,000 on average.

Is it fair to compare the salaries of Wall Street executives to the teachers in Wisconsin? Are the jobs on Wall Street more valuable than the ones in education? It seems like an easy answer, with Wall Street profits reaching $27.6 billion last year. But with our job market thinning and unemployment hovering around 9% it seems wise to invest in education to help build the jobs of tomorrow. The financial sector is but one component of our economy, an economy sorely needing diversification based on how apparent it is now that we depended on Wall Street to create capital and jobs for far too long.

Countries like Japan and China are busy making investments in science, infrastructure and education. It’s already been all but conceded that China will soon have a larger economy than the United States in a few short years. What are we doing to compete?

America is locked in a battle over budgets, and many of the calls for streamlining our government are well intentioned. The problem is not that we are trying to cut too much, but we’re focused on cutting the most minor expenses that help the most vulnerable, the largest base of potential workers who make up the unemployed. The largest personal incomes are being protected, tax cuts for the top 2%.

The teachers in Wisconsin are a microcosm of the misguided efforts to make America more fiscally responsible. How can anyone say with a straight face that we need to get these minuscule teacher’s salaries in line when we dump trillions of dollars into failing banks, essentially tossing out the entire element of risk? If you’re too big too fail, what’s stopping you from making the same risky moves and doing it all over again?

How we reward good teachers and weed out the bad ones is a valid debate. Money alone isn’t going to help bring up the quality of education. It’s not, however, a subject for debate when the quality of the teachers isn’t even being considered in taking away their rights to collective bargaining. This isn’t about quality of teachers, this is about taking away their ability to make a living wage. Even with the rights to collectively bargain, they’ll still continue to be underpaid, but that’s all that they’re asking for.

Anyone who thinks being paid $60,000 a year at the high end hasn’t spent much time around teachers, who work around the clock putting together lesson plans, grading papers and creating examinations, at nights and on weekends.

The double standard we hold our teachers to says a great deal about the direction of this country. If we want to stop rewarding others for failure with no consequences for continuing the same behavior, we should first start by looking a bit further up the financial food chain.

Image: Parents and education advocates demonstrate on the steps of New York‘s City Hall March 2, 2011. The group urged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to support a progressive tax on New York‘s richest in order to avert proposed cuts and layoffs close to 4,700 New York City school teachers to close the massive gap in education funding left by Governor Cuomo’s budget plan. REUTERS/Mike Segar


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What are we doing to compete? Dumbing down our kids with inferior teachers that’s what.

Posted by DPender | Report as abusive

$200,000 is middle class income, not a high income when it comes to tax breaks, but $50,000 is robbery when paid to a state employee?
The banks have also shifted from bonuses to higher salaries after the talk of taxing bonuses at a higher rate, so mentioning bonuses only is not painting the whole picture.

Posted by Potatoe1 | Report as abusive

Compensation is based on supply & demand! Plenty willing and able to teach our kids the basics for far less! When you factor in leagcy costs and the fact that most teachers are boomers earning closer to the max, the math doesn’t add up-ask a math teacher! Schools don’t need to look like upscale health clubs either! We have a small, suburban school that blew most of their budget on a new sports stadium for the few at the expense of the majority of students! We need to live at or below our means, the public sector must shrink and yes, taxes will need to rise too! We’ve waited much too long!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

There is a wave of boomer teachers who are retiring. These teachers have 30-40 years of experience. There are 10’s of thousands that will no longer be in the classroom. Anyone younger then 35 probably had many of these teachers. Your education depended upon them, if they are all so inferior then that implies you are too.
Where are the teachers coming from to replace the retirees?
I wouldn’t recommend a college grad to enter the profession with worse salaries, benefits and working conditions then exist now.
Remember, most teachers chose to work with your children because they love to give back and pass-on their knowledge to the new generations. We also appreciate the fact that those who will make a future difference in our society depend upon us to assure they have the skills and tools to do so. Most of us are not in it to make a financial killing.., just a comfortable middle class quality of life would be enough.
If you can’t find a way to pay and support your teachers to assure us of a reasonable life, then most of the talented graduates will find something better to do and you will end up with the desperately inferiors you so dread.
Sincerely, a good teacher.

Posted by Guddy | Report as abusive

Your argument might be more compelling if you had confirmed the statistics cited by the Atlantic Monthly. According to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction -http://dpi.state.wi.us/lbstat/newasr.ht ml – the average teacher salary in 2010 was $49,093 and average benefits were $25,750, for a total compensation of $74,843.55. The highest salary was $116.006 with benefits of $26,067 for a total compensation package of $143,133. This value was reported for East Troy Community School District (avg. student expenditure of $9,277).

Similarly, the average administrator salary was $77,857.02 and average fringe benefits of $29,694.40, for a total compensation package of $107,551.42. The high salary was $198,500 with benefits of $58,215, for a total compensation package of $256,715.

Clearly the average educator receives a handsome five figure compensation package of nearly $75,000, all of which is provided by the tax payers of the state of Wisconsin. It is spurious to compare compensation of tax payer funded positions with positions in various Wall Street companies. The better comparison is against the employees in the state of Wisconsin. Average household income (proxy for salaries) in 2009 in Wisconsin (most recent data) was $49,993 (www.bea.gov). Excluding benefits, the average teacher salary of $49,093 was comparable to the ENTIRE household income in 2009. I submit the private sector employees in Wisconsin would be pleased to have average compensation packages of nearly $75,000. That would represent a huge pay raise.

Posted by DrData | Report as abusive