Democrats need to placate a host of entrenched claimants. This means that they’re all for pumping money into schools, but they do so in ways that tend to further bloat bureaucracies, pad payrolls, and supersize benefits rather than increase paychecks, reward hard work, or honor excellence.
The public thinks teachers deserve a raise. Last year, 72 percent of respondents to the annual Education Next survey said that teacher salaries should be higher, and just 4 percent said they should be lower. (Among Republicans, the split was 56 percent to 7 percent.) Even when told how much teachers in their state earn (which is invariably more than expected), respondents broke 60 percent to 4 percent for higher pay.
The public has a point. The National Education Association reported this spring that, in 2021–22, the average teacher’s salary was $66,745. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics has it a bit higher, at $67,680 as of May 2021, but I’ll use the NEA figure here.) Sixty-six grand isn’t peanuts, but it is below the $70,000 median for college graduates in all fields. To attract and retain the kinds of educators we want, we should aim to pay teachers more than the typical college grad makes. Another recent survey asked teachers how much they think teachers should earn. The median response was $80,000.
As I note in The Great School Rethink, communities benefit when teachers are capable and professionally compensated. And, contrary to union talking points, there’s no evidence that cheapskate taxpayers are the problem when it comes to directing money at public education. Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 report of the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education, per pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has doubled. In 2019 (even before the massive infusion of federal pandemic aid), U.S. schools spent $16,774 per student.
But it can be unclear what taxpayers are getting for their money. Nationally, student achievement has been stagnant for a decade. Adding insult to injury, increases in school spending over time have done nothing to quiet concerns about teacher pay. Between 2012 and 2022, inflation-adjusted teacher pay fell by close to 4 percent even as real per pupil spending increased by 16 percent. In fact, falling pay and rising spending have been a pattern since the Clinton era. Why aren’t more dollars translating into more pay? Key culprits include the number of nonteaching staff, outsized benefits, and a truncated employee year.