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.
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.
But he notes that health benefits comprise 7.1 percent of teachers' hourly compensation costs, versus 5.1 percent for professionals in private business, according to the BLS. Meanwhile, virtually all public-school teachers are included in "defined-benefit" retirement plans in which they receive guaranteed scheduled payments for life, with increases for inflation. Conversely, most professionals today participate in "defined-contribution" plans such as the 401(k). Plan benefits depend on how much the individual employee contributed while working, and also on the performance of underlying investments. And there is no adjustment for inflation. As a result, Mr. Podgursky said, the average teacher is able to retire earlier with a higher pension than most other workers.
Mr. Podgursky also points out that annual union laments about low teacher pay routinely fail to account for shorter work years. Even including additional workdays for parent conferences and professional development, the average teacher's work year is about 190 days long, versus 240 days for lawyers and accountants.
Meanwhile, teachers, on average, report being in school fewer than 38 hours per week. Collective bargaining agreements often limit the number of hours administrators can require teachers to spend on-site. In the most recent New York teaching contract, for example, teachers' workdays are limited to five hours and 30 minutes, excluding a one-hour, duty-free lunch.
Brad Underland, an 11-year high-school English teacher in Olympia, Wash., plans to work less than that this coming school year, though for different reasons: He's headed for a second career as a freelance commercial writer. Although he'll continue teaching part-time, he's spent this summer laying the groundwork for his new career, contacting business owners, graphic designers, and PR firms that may need his skills.
Mr. Underland said he doesn't "have any big issues with low teacher pay," but his decision to leave teaching does relate to pay in the longer term: Because of his district's union-imposed step-and-grade pay structure, he'll never make much more than the $48,000 a year he makes now.
Heritage Foundation education analyst Krista Kafer said such lockstep pay scales, a relic of an era when minorities and women were arbitrarily underpaid, now victimize broad categories of educators, such as high-performing teachers and those in high-demand fields like math and special education.
"Under a single-salary schedule, a teacher on probation and the 'teacher of the year' get paid the same if they have the same amount of time on the job and the same degree," Ms. Kafer said. "That's innately unfair. And young entrepreneurial teachers may want to do exciting things in the classroom, but no matter what they do, they get paid the same as everyone else."
Still, Ms. Kafer notes that teacher-friends of hers love their jobs and don't complain about pay. That's because some professions, while not as lucrative, pay off in emotional fulfillment.
That's exactly how Ed Dawson feels. The Vancouver Spanish teacher started teaching in 1970, but between 1980 and 1990 took a hiatus to practice law. His exclusive "closed practice" real-estate niche "was very lucrative, but I didn't see what I was really accomplishing," Mr. Dawson said. "It didn't give me that way-down-to-the-soul satisfaction that teaching did."
Concluding that money mattered less than his heart's calling, he closed his law practice in 1990 and returned to teaching. "Sometimes you have to say, wait a second: I can do all right as a teacher. If I love my job and can meet my financial obligations, what else do I need?"
Unions say teachers across the board need higher salaries-but that beginning teachers may need them most. Veteran teachers WORLD spoke with for this article agreed, and salary surveys seem to bear that out: According to AFT's survey for the 2000-01 school year, the average beginning teacher salary was $28,986, significantly lower than starting pay for many other college-trained white-collar professionals.
But when legislators in Washington State last month approved a pay increase for newer teachers, the Washington Education Association (WEA) threatened to sue.
At issue is language in the pay-raise legislation that allows school districts to receive the money only if they use it to raise the pay of beginning teachers. The legislature had already responded to union complaints about low pay for junior teachers, authorizing a similar raise in 1999. But local unions that year negotiated the money away, using most of it to raise the pay of senior teachers. That angered GOP Senator Dino Rossi and other state lawmakers. So this time they wrote the budget with language preventing a similar bait-and-switch. The WEA has charged that only local unions should negotiate raises, and may file suit as early as October.
But education policy experts say the WEA , like other unions, is only trying to preserve its monopoly on teacher pay-both in determining it and publicizing it. It's a circular problem: Unions buttress their arguments about low teacher pay using government data, but the government derives its pay data from unions.
The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), an agency of the Department of Education, provides a wealth of independent statistics on such topics as student demographics and performance. But NCES derives its information on pay from union reports, particularly from the National Education Association (NEA). Meanwhile local school boards, made up of citizens who usually take on the duties part-time, depend on union-derived data to negotiate union pay. "Right now, labor has better information than management," said Mr. Podgursky.
And taxpayers have almost no information at all. Union contracts, though funded with taxpayer dollars, often are treated as proprietary information. Even journalists wishing to view collective-bargaining agreements must file Freedom of Information Act requests and wait weeks to view them.
Mr. Podgursky believes such contracts should be posted on the Internet for public inspection. "Public schools are public agencies funded by taxpayers. All of this should be more transparent, and the Web would be a great leveling device," he said. "Every citizen should know what's in a collective-bargaining agreement, so we can all see what we're paying for."