Education Reformers Lowered Teachers’ Salaries, While Promising to Raise Them

Elite education reformers have sold their movement as presenting a tradeoff to teachers: teachers would earn higher salaries to compensate for the weakened job security and degraded pensions that “no excuses” work environments would engender.  But while plying the media with anecdotal evidence of raised salaries and strident claims about their status as true liberals, reformers have succeeded in degrading teachers’ pay along with their pensions and job security.

Though few reformers would openly admit it, degraded pensions are a natural and obvious outcome of their policies and political allegiances.  From OhioWisconsin, and New Jersey, where Republican governors famously slashed pensions, to such blue states as New York (where I teach), where a newly diminished pension “tier” is introduced every several years, American teachers have seen their pensions rapidly decline in recent years.  And reformers have only worked to hasten this process.  One way is by advocating charter school proliferation.  Charter schools, almost by definition, impose longer working days, weeks, and years than public schools – and usually without tenure protections.  Thus, by design, most charter teachers only work for a few years, and their yearly turnover is sky-high.  In turn, few charter teachers will ever earn pensions.

Reformers also directly attack existing tenure systems.  Once again, from Michigan under Rick Snyder, to Colorado and New York under Democratic governors, weakened tenure systems have become as ubiquitous as weakened pension programs.  And reformers have been behind every successful effort to crush tenure.  The result is that teachers at public schools, without strong job protections, are less likely to work long enough to earn a pension in the first place, and more likely to earn a degraded pension, than in pre-reform days.  Thus, pensions, thanks to reformers and their allies, are necessarily rarer and worth less, at both charters and public schools.

Since reformers weaken pension systems indirectly, by creating charters and weakening tenure, they enjoy a certain plausible deniability.  They could claim that they respect pensions, but must begrudgingly weaken them through needed reforms.  Remarkably, though, some reformers have abandoned such a politic approach, and declared their hostility to pensions.  In 2011, Michelle Rhee famously appeared on Fox News to support Scott Walker in his battle against collective bargaining.  She argued that although “unions can collectively bargain over basic things like salaries,” they should not be able to bargain over pensions.  For Rhee, pensions, unlike salaries, are not “basic,” but apparently, extravagant – though she gave no reason whatever for this distinction.  What is clear is that in the ideology that Rhee and Walker share, pensions lack the mystical legitimacy that only salaries possess.

Such moments of ill-advised honesty notwithstanding, Rhee and other reformers have consistently claimed that they are true liberals, despite appearances to the contrary.  In 2012, Rhee told The Atlantic, “I’m not just a Democrat – – I feel like I’m a pretty lefty Democrat,” adding that “Democrats are united about the aspiration of ensuring that every single child gets a decent education and that the investment is there to do that.”  For Rhee, helping Walker and Chris Christie slash pensions does not disqualify her as a “lefty,” apparently because teachers’ pensions do not count as educational “investments.”  It should follow that reformers such as Rhee, as a most idiosyncratic group of far left Democrats who are contemptuous of both tenure and pension systems, must at least favor much higher salaries for teachers – a hypothesis to return to.

Rhee is in good company.  In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim claimed to believe that teachers’ unions should “make sure their workers get paid a lot of money,” despite his having advocated an essentially budget-neutral approach to education reform in Superman.  He argued to Smiley that unions should not protect all of their members, nor fight against increased working hours, nor “get in the way of” any proposed reforms –  especially not the unchecked proliferation of union-hostile charter schools.  And despite believing that unions should thereby forfeit most of their essential functions, presumably without extra compensation for their members, Guggenheim still claimed to be a “liberal,” risibly adducing his childhood dinner table conversations as proof.

In a controversial speech in 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced a desire to fire half of the city’s teachers, while doubling the salaries of the survivors.  Many viewed his comment as ill-advised.  But it served the myth that corporate-style reform yields increased teachers’ salaries; a myth which major media have helped to propel.  For also during his mayoralty, 60 Minutes profiled a Manhattan charter school that paid its teachers salaries of $125,000 per year, in exchange for a brutal work schedule and no job security.  The underlying message, advanced by interviewee and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, was that such schools reflected the mission of education reform generally.  No more coddling; only rugged and talented teachers will survive – as long as market forces may be unleashed to lure them with Ivy-League level salaries.  To hear Rhee, Guggenheim, Bloomberg, Klein, and our major media – education reform’s brightest luminaries, and their mouthpiece – one might believe that higher teacher salaries were the order of the day.

Have they been?  Corporate-style reformers have dominated education policy at least since the 2001 signing of No Child Left Behind.  And if they had wished to compensate for their ravaging of tenure and pension systems by raising teachers’ salaries, they would have done so, and proof of their triumph would be manifest by now.  But according to the Economic Policy Institute, American teachers’ pay has only fallen, by 2.6%, from 1996 to 2015, and has gone from being 2.3% lower than comparably educated professionals’ pay, in 1994, to now being 17% less (as of 2015).  And contrary to the myth that charter teachers trade tenure and union protections for higher salaries, charter teachers are paid less than public school teachers in many places, including charter-dense Washington D.C. and Michigan.

There are no excuses left for what corporate reformers have done to teachers’ compensation.  Reformers may not claim that fiscal conservatives such as Bloomberg, Christie, Walker, and Snyder, thwarted their “lefty liberal” intentions to raise salaries – for they supported these leaders at every turn, especially when they slashed pensions or disempowered unions.  They may not claim to misunderstand that if you weaken teachers’ bargaining power by degrading their job security, insist that reform can be done cheaply, and praise right-wingers who give to hedge funds what they steal from teachers, it will be difficult to raise teachers’ salaries in any states.  No, reformers cannot claim to misunderstand basic economics, since expertise in marketizing education, not experience in the classroom, is their very raison d’etre.  Reformers may only take credit for purposely degrading all forms of teachers’ compensation, and for duping media elites into believing that they wished to do otherwise.

Erik Mears is a veteran and an educator.