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The Cruel Myths About Teachers

It’s Labor Day weekend, the schools have been in session about a week, and the disgruntled voices of a minority drone on. Their screeching refrain, often in letters to the editor and talk show call-ins, is familiar:

–Teachers only work half a year.

–Teachers are overpaid.

–Local school districts and their taxpayers shouldn’t have to hold the burden of teacher salaries.

Often, those who complain the most are those who were average or below-average students who blame teachers, not themselves, for their mediocrity. Although most claim to be strong free-market capitalists, they believe teachers should not have much higher wages and benefits than they do, a philosophy bordering on socialism.

Let’s look at each of the claims.

First, the work year. Public school teachers generally work a 180-day school year. Each day is about six hours. That leads the uninformed to believe teachers only work half a year. But, let’s do the math. There are 365 days in a year. Subtract two days a week, which the average worker does not work, and that leaves 261 days. Next, remove 10 days of vacation; some get as many as 20 days a year, but 10 days is the usual vacation time. That leaves 251 days. Next, there are state and federal holidays, bracketed by New Year’s Day and Christmas. Generally, most businesses accept the 10 federal holidays. That leaves 241 days.

The critics may claim that teachers still work 61 days less than the average worker. But let’s look at the hours. Most public school teachers may be in class only six hours a day, but they have to be at work before classes, most stay after classes to assist in extracurricular activities and then, at home in evenings and weekends, grade papers, read current information about teaching practices and their own academic specialties, and prepare lesson plans for five to seven classes. With schools shoving more students into each class, teachers don’t have the option of working less—they still have to grade papers, talk with individual students and their parents about performance.

Most teachers don’t spend the summers lying around beach houses. Summer is when most develop lesson plans for the coming academic year, attend professional conferences, and take additional college classes to keep their certification and improve their knowledge of teaching methods and their own academic disciplines. Now, let’s look at those “overpriced” teachers. The average wage of a teacher—who must have at least a college degree, and additional coursework, often a graduate degree—is about $56,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The range is about $40,000 (South Dakota) to about $75,000 (New York). While this may seem generous to an overburdened taxpayer earning only $35,000 a year, it isn’t a wage that is comparable to those with similar education and work experience. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute says public school teachers are paid about 19 percent less than professionals with similar education and experience. Some, especially in the sciences and math, may be paid less than half of what others with their backgrounds are paid.

Finally, taxpayers do have a valid point about the burden on local school districts. Most school funding comes from local taxpayers. When the federal stimulus funds were eliminated, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett chose not to replace it. Corbett also cut about $500 million that was not federal stimulus money. Corbett did restore federal stimulus funds for corrections and certain areas of health care, but not to education. Further, while cutting education budgets and putting greater burdens on local districts, he generously gave out more than $3 billion in corporate tax breaks. Many politicians may say they believe in education, that the future of America is in the students of today, but the reality is their words are little more vacuous babbling.

Because of Corbett’s low priority for education, about $350 million has not been restored, leading to about 30,000 layoffs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He is not unique. Other conservative administrations have also chosen not to increase educational funding. The layoffs have led to larger class sizes, significant cuts in arts and music programs (while not cutting athletics), and fewer critical programs, including those that target at-risk students from dropping out of school. Layoffs also mean that taxpayers are burdened with helping pay unemployment benefits and some welfare benefits. It also means that teachers, teaching assistants, and others who directly work with student are less able to financially contribute to local business and the economy or to pay the higher level of local, state, and federal taxes they contributed when fully employed.

Inner city and rural areas do not have the property tax base as the affluent suburbs, but there are numerous costs that are fixed, including buses, and the physical plant. Thus, the burden on individuals is greater in the inner city and rural areas. Some of this is political—the impoverished don’t contribute as much to political campaigns as do the affluent. Because of the failure by the state to provide adequate assistance to local districts, in Pennsylvania the 50 poorest districts have seen a $475 per pupil cut this past year, while the 50 most affluent districts have seen only a $95 cut per pupil, according to data compiled by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) from state documents. This disparity strongly affects the quality of education in the rural and inner city schools.

The concept of school taxes based upon value of property is archaic and needs to be modified to allow students from the least affluent districts to have the same quality of education as those in the most affluent districts.

Critics of teachers also wail about the high cost of pensions. In Pennsylvania, the problem is not the teachers, but the failure of the Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, and Tom Corbett administrations to make the minimum payments to the pension system. Wythe Keever of the PSEA suggests that what the three administrations did was similar to consumers who max out their credit cards and refuse to make even the minimum payments.

There are slackers in the education profession, those who do the minimum work, give high grades, and just shove students along. There are also incompetent teachers who can, and should, be terminated. Contrary to what many believe, tenured teachers can be fired for just cause, as long as their rights are protected. There are slackers and incompetents in every profession. Education isn’t unique.

And, there are some parents who do little to help their children learn as much as possible, who instill a hatred of teachers and education by constantly complaining about overpaid and underworked teachers.

Starting this Labor Day, it would be nice if those who run a constant criticism would look at the facts—including facts that could suggest better ways to teach our children and to pay for their education. When they do, they will realize that teachers are not overpaid relative to others with the same education and experience, that they work more than the average workers—and only because of unions do teachers have the support to keep education from disintegrating into mediocrity.

Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. He is author of 20 books, including Fracking Pennsylvania, a critically-acclaimed in-depth investigation of the process and effects of high volume hydraulic horizontal fracturing throughout the country.

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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