Presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, recently unveiled a new plan to give all American teachers a $13,500 raise, and union representatives quickly praised the proposal, despite the $315 billion federal price tag.
It’s true: Harris’ concerns are valid. Nationally, teacher inflation-adjusted take-home pay has declined by two percent over the past two and a half decades, and many of the states dealing with striking educators are near the bottom of national rankings for average teacher salary. But despite these legitimate concerns, Harris’s proposal misidentifies the problem, so her solution is unlikely to work.
Harris blames underinvestment in public education for teacher’s woes. Yet she fails to acknowledge that some of the policies teacher unions and others on the left have historically defended — like increasing support staff and preserving generous retirement benefits — are the real culprit behind stagnant teacher salaries.
Protesters often decry “underfunded public schools,” but there’s actually little merit behind the idea that teacher salaries are suffering because of decreased education spending. According to a study from education reform advocacy organization EdChoice, nationwide, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending grew 27 percent between 1992 and 2014. But instead of supporting teacher raises, much of the increased spending went to hiring more support staff and administrators, many of whom don’t do much to directly support student learning.
Between 1992 and 2015, non-teacher staff positions grew by 47 percent, while overall student enrollment only grew by 20 percent. If these funding bumps had instead been directed toward teacher wages instead, salaries would be significantly higher than they are now — meaning fewer strikes.
Another oft-ignored cause of lagging teacher pay is the state-run pension system. Many states are struggling to uphold their end of the bargain in funding these plans, and that should come as no surprise. Consulting group Bellwether Education Partners notes that “the gap between what states have saved for teacher pensions and what they have promised to pay retirees totals almost $500 billion.”
This gives states no choice but to divert dollars away from classrooms — i.e. teacher salaries — to pay down debt. Nationwide, pension costs are approaching 10 percent of all education expenditures, a figure that has doubled over the last 15 years and will only grow in the coming decade. Absent serious fiscal reforms, more cities will start to look like Los Angeles, where about one-fifth of revenues meant for daily school-level operations will be diverted away from classrooms in 2021 just to pay off pension costs.
It’s shocking how little these gigantic investments have actually done to increase student achievement. The glut of support staff and administrators in recent decades has only led to flat math scores, and even a slight dip in reading scores. Additionally, as a Reason Foundation review of the research points out, generous benefit plans do little to attract and retain high-quality teachers. And since teacher quality is the most important factor driving students’ educational achievement, all the fiscal stress caused by pension debt has hardly translated to more learning in the classroom.
Before spending an additional $315 billion in federal tax dollars on teacher raises, policymakers like Harris should focus instead on where our public education dollars are already going. Most teachers are paid based on rigid salary schedules that over-reward seniority over actual competence and make it so that educators reach their peak earnings about 15 years later than other professionals — a factor that contributes heavily to the perception that teachers are underpaid.
One possible remedy to this situation is for wages to be distributed more evenly over a teacher’s career. This would help decrease the high turnover rate for young teachers by allowing better compensation earlier on. More generally, school districts should focus on cutting administrative bloat so resources can be steered to classrooms and teacher pay. Another solution is to reform pension systems so that states can get out of debt and give teachers both better wages and more sustainable, secure retirement plans.
So no matter how many union leaders cheer her on, Sen. Harris’ policy solutions are still misguided. Rather than advocating policies with a hefty price tag and ignoring the root cause of stagnant teacher salaries, education reformers should reimagine how teachers are paid and where staff are truly needed. More isn’t always better if it just means that the status quo is upheld.