A week ago, researchers from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (both free-market think tanks in DC) released a report claiming that American public school teachers, as a whole, are significantly overpaid.
Jason Richwine of Heritage and Andrew Biggs of AEI base the claim on their perceived market value of the average teacher, who, they say, tends to be at a cognitive disadvantage in comparison to their counterparts in the private market.
Teachers, many of whom pour their heart and soul into what they see as a thankless job, scoff at the notion that they're underpaid. They also understandably take issue with the assertion that they're essentially stupider than comparable workers in the private sector.
But after some reflection and thought, I'm not sure those are the most important points to take issue with.
The report brings up some interesting points all sides would do well to consider. Richwine and Biggs point out that test takers (across a number of tests) who say their future profession will be teaching typically perform worse than those who hope to enter other professions. They note that education courses are notoriously less rigorous than perhaps engineering or math courses typically are. They argue that because private school teachers make less, public school teachers are shielded from the realities of the free market. Lastly, they note that teachers who switch from the private sector into teaching typically take a salary increase while the reverse is true for those who leave public education for jobs in the private sector.
All this to show that school districts are paying teachers more than they have to. Richwine and Biggs would presumably argue that we could have the same quality of public teaching force for a significantly smaller sum of money ($120 billion to be exact).
The question at hand is what criteria constitute a basis on which to rely in determining the proper salary to pay a teacher. According to Richwine and Biggs, "public workers should be paid at a level commensurate with their skills.... Ideally, if a teacher's skills are worth $X in the private marketplace that teacher should be paid $X by the government." But are there other factors one might consider in determining the salary level of a given public worker?
Should we, for example, consider the inevitable negative reactionary costs that would be associated with the effects of students lacking access to teachers or schools?
Should we, for example, consider the piles of paperwork that public employees have to complete as a result of poorly considered and unfunded mandates?
Should we, for example, consider what it takes to love and care about children who lack experience with adults who love and care about them?
Should we, for example, consider what level of compensation would be necessary to draw "cognitively" talented individuals into teaching?
Should we, for example, consider the social irresponsibility that comes with taking advantage of committed teachers by assuming rational individuals will always seek the highest paying job rather than the job that brings them the most contentment?
Should we, for example, consider what price an effective democracy is worth, and that the private market would likely offer next to nothing for a committed educator to work in an impoverished community?
Should we, for example, consider that public services have long been provided precisely because the private market would not independently demand them despite their social utility?
Should we, for example, consider that the free market might not be the infallibly reliable tool for compelling economic and social justice many of us were indoctrinated that it is back when we were forming our ideologies as undergraduates?
I tend to agree with most of what Richwine and Biggs highlighted in their report. The teaching profession is not exactly teeming with would-be Stephen Hawkings. And the private market would probably offer a lesser salary to teachers than most school districts currently do. But you'll have to forgive me for distrusting a decision-making tool that offers billions of dollars for performing services with no identifiable social utility (the creation and management of collateralized debt obligations or the throwing of touch downs) and next to nothing for offering homeless people a way out of poverty.
The free market is not God. It does not speak with divine authority. It represents the billions of both good and bad decisions made by millions of consumers of our distinct culture (some rational, some not; some with means, some without; some who give a damn about a fair society, and many who don't; some on a whim, and some after considerable deliberation) on a daily basis. If that's the basis on which you think teachers' salaries should be decided, then perhaps we could be fair and ask only that your former teachers be the ones who suffer.