Mises Wire

Public School Teachers Are Not Underpaid

It seems like the media will never stop promoting the myth that public school teachers are “underpaid.” The most recent example is the front-page story in Time, “This Is What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in America.”

Time tells of a woman who makes $55,000 per year teaching but works two other jobs in order to “pay the bills.” The article includes complaints about a teacher making almost $70,000 per year and even suggests that sexism is partly to blame for deficient pay because there are more women teachers than men.

It is no surprise that the media promotes these sorts of stories. They want public elementary and secondary school teachers to make more money. Unfortunately, it is probably not for the reason they want us to think. For if the media cared about teachers as a class, they would also advocate for private school teachers (who make far less than public school teachers on average). There is something about public education that concerns them.

The likely explanation for why the media constantly tell us that public school teachers should be paid more is that teachers unions and the media are political allies. It is no secret that the teachers unions have strong ties to the Democratic Party . And the mainstream media, including publications like Time, leans to the political left.



What About Private School Teachers?

Of course, the media can successfully push for greater pay for public school teachers because they are paid through taxation, while private school teacher pay is dictated by consumer demands. This is the difference between taxation and voluntary exchange. The amount of money raised by taxation can be almost unlimited regardless of the utility provided, while the government’s subsequent expenditure is arbitrary in both quality and quantity, without any connection to consumer valuation.

This is the great irony of the claim that public school teachers are underpaid. By socializing education, state governments have removed the very market forces that determine wages. So there is no way to measure what a teacher actually “should” be paid.

There are private schools in America, but these schools are an imperfect measure of teacher pay because the government’s quasi-monopoly on education decreases demand for private education. Parents are much less likely to pay for private schools when “free” public schools are readily available. Those who send their children to private schools effectively pay double tuition, as they must continue to pay property taxes for public schools that they do not use.

Public School Teachers Are Overpaid

However, a comparison between public and private schools suggests the opposite of what the media claims. It is not that public school teachers are paid too little. Rather, public school teachers are paid too much. It is quite certain that few kindergarten teachers would be making anywhere near $70,000 per year in a free market of education. Yet wealthy school districts can pay this much because the revenue from property taxes is so high.

We can know that public school teachers on average make too much money because government employees in general make more than their private-employee counterparts . Government employees, including public school teachers, receive hefty pensions and insurance packages as part of their compensation. These benefits, as well as the favorable hours and extensive vacations, are often left out of discussions of teacher pay.

The wage premium of public school teachers is primarily due to the government’s quasi-monopoly of education and the high revenue brought in by taxation. In addition, teachers unions have decreased competition and driven up wages by lobbying for unreasonable state certification standards (usually requiring a degree through a university’s college of education rather than mere proficiency in the subject taught).

Of course, some teachers would be paid a high wage in a free market. However, this would be the best and most skilled teachers, not just those who teach for many years and receive automatic annual pay increases (a practice that was negotiated by unions). The current public school system actually discourages teacher development by rewarding the number of years worked instead of the individual’s performance.

Only the Free Market Can Determine Wages

The central point is that a school system that is exempt from market forces is unable to calculate the market value of schooling and the wages of the teachers who provide their services. Instead, teacher salaries are determined by government bureaucrats, and these vary widely by state and district.

Public school teachers are not “underpaid.” No one knows what they should be paid because there is no free market to address this question. However, we can be sure that many public school teachers are earning far more than they would be if exposed to market demands, where schools seek to provide the best education for the lowest cost. Free choice in education would link a teacher’s pay to the value of his or her services, in contrast to the current coercive system that pays many teachers more than their productivity justifies.

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