Why Don’t Teachers Earn More?

By Mike Cronin

On average, elementary school teachers make about $53,000 per year as of 2012.  As a group, they are often thought of as deserving higher pay and better benefits. Indeed, in my state of residence, Arizona, elementary teachers earn one of the lowest mid-career salaries for bachelor’s graduates.  So why can’t teachers get more?  After all, they have higher education and they have some of the most powerful unions around, like the NEA. Is it because of oppressive state and local government or vindictive school districts?  Of course, some of that is going on, but there are a few simpler and and more widely applicable explanations:

First: Simple economics. In general, the supply of elementary teachers exceeds the demand by about double, so there is simply no need for districts to pay any more than they are – there is always someone else waiting for a job that would be willing to work for the going rate. I saw a graphic that lamented America’s priorities because teachers make less than cable installers in one area.  It has nothing to do with priorities, it has to do with supply.  Teachers make less because supply exceeds demand – and that’s not just true for teachers, it’s true for lots of industries. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, firefighters, and police officers, our protectors, make less than sports and entertainment stars for the same reason. Ditto for nurses and doctors – doctors make more because demand exceeds supply.  As long as there is an ample supply of teachers willing to work for the going rate, then the going rate will not rise much.

Second, the unions, especially powerful unions like the NEA, don’t do what’s best for teachers; they do what’s best for unions.  When teachers’ interests and the union’s interest coincide, teachers benefit.  When they do not, teachers lose. Since unions typically advocate for non-merit factors, like years on the job, to be primary in setting pay and achieving tenure, really good teachers of a given experience level will get paid the same as mediocre and bad teachers of the same experience level. Thus, the unions’ interests most often align with the mediocre and bad teachers, who get paid more than they might deserve thanks to union intervention.  This sucks for the superstars, since they don’t get paid what they are worth.

If you are a good teacher and you wonder why you can’t get paid more than you do, it’s because your union is better at advocating for your mediocre and poor colleagues than it is at advocating for you, and because there is no shortage of people willing to work for the going rate.

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