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Comparing apples to apples

National | SPECIAL REPORT: Everybody knows that teachers are underpaid, right? It turns out that they do quite well when benefits and the number of hours and days worked are taken into account

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

FIFTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD ED DAWSON spent his whole summer thinking about kid stuff. But he wasn't just wasting time. Mr. Dawson, a Spanish teacher at Battle Ground High School in Vancouver, Wash., wanted to improve the quality of his foreign-language classes. So he spent the summer creating Spanish "Jeopardy," "Wheel of Fortune," and a team-challenge quiz game with lights, buzzers, and the ambitious-sounding name "Champions of the World."

"I wanted to sort of trick the students into learning by making it more fun," Mr. Dawson explained, "so I spent quite a bit of time this summer revising how I'll teach Spanish."

But other teachers WORLD spoke with spent their summers earning extra money outside the teaching profession. That's an opportunity most white-collar professionals don't have-and one reason some conservative economists are challenging what has become in education an article of faith: that public-school teachers are underpaid.

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In a report published this summer in Education Next, a journal of the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, University of Missouri-Columbia economist Michael Podgursky concluded that public-school teachers, on average, earn more per hour, enjoy more fringe benefits and flexibility, and have more time off than professionals with comparable training. Mr. Podgursky claims that the average teacher earns more than middle-level accountants, registered nurses, and even engineers.

That flies in the face of reports issued annually by the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation's two largest teachers unions. They claim teachers make less than other white-collar workers-specifically mid-level accountants and engineers. In a June article in USA Today, AFT president Sandra Feldman blasted Mr. Podgursky's methods, calling them "mechanical bean-counting."

Are they? Both the unions and economists like Mr. Podgursky are using the same union-published pay data. The problem, he says, is selective interpretation.

"If you're going to compare teachers' pay to pay in other professions, you have to compare apples to apples," said Mr. Podgursky, author of Teacher Pay and Teacher Quality. He noted that when unions and their supporters argue that teacher pay is low, they rarely adjust for such public-education perks as shorter workdays, summer vacations, and built-in holiday breaks: "The number of hours teachers work is actually a lot lower. The work year is shorter, the workday is shorter, and teachers work on-site fewer hours per week."

State by state, annual compensation numbers for teachers vary widely. In 2002, for example, teachers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey earned on average between $50,000 and $54,575 per year, according to the NEA. Teachers in 18 other states averaged between $40,200 (Colorado) and $49,750 (Rhode Island) annually. The rest averaged between $31,295 (South Dakota) and $39,290 (Texas) per year.

But according to the National Compensation Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), teachers make more than all other workers in the BLS's "professional specialty" category when pay is computed by the hour. Professional-specialty workers include architects, engineers, computer systems analysts, and scientists. In 2000, workers in that classification averaged $27.49 per hour, while K-12 teachers averaged between $28.79 and $29.97 per hour.

But for Frank Boever, an art teacher in Spencer, Iowa, actual money in the bank matters more than statistical computations. Eighteen years ago, Mr. Boever took a summer job as arts-and-crafts director for the YMCA because he needed extra money during the summer. "My wife was a stay-home mom and I needed that little extra income," Mr. Boever said. Today, he still has that summer job, working weekdays from nine to noon, supervising 15 other park leaders at four playgrounds, and helping kids with projects from pewter-casting to candle-making. With three daughters, including one in high school and one a recent college graduate herself looking for a teaching job, he still needs the money.

"I don't believe teachers receive a fair wage," Mr. Boever told WORLD. "The teaching field is not viewed as important as others." He also pointed out that net pay for teachers in Iowa has dropped in recent years, driven down by rising health-insurance costs, which have climbed nearly 20 percent over the past two years. "Over the past three years any pay increase I've seen has been eaten up by insurance," Mr. Boever said.

But what's true in Iowa may not hold true for teachers in general. According to Mr. Podgursky, the average teacher fares better than other white-collar professionals in the area of fringe benefits. He admits that benefit comparisons are difficult because of disparities in data-reporting, and federal security laws affecting teachers' Social Security eligibility.

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