As we face down a national recession, and Wall Street takes a pounding, the stock we place in teachers is on the rise. If you didn’t appreciate the expertise, labor, dedication and love that teachers patiently pour into our children most days of the week, then you probably do now.
To help reduce the spread of coronavirus, districts across the country have closed schools, many for the rest of the academic year. Parents are left to play the role of teacher, principal and lunch lady all at once. We’re pulling out our hair trying to figure out lesson plans, distance learning platforms and assignments. And our children are treating us like the flailing emergency substitute teachers we are.
Teachers obviously aren’t bought and sold on Wall Street; however, their value is finally being recognized by those of us forced to take their role by the pandemic.
One of these new substitute teachers, television and film producer, Shonda Rhimes, estimated teachers’ real worth on Twitter. “Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week,” said Rhimes.
Rhimes is mostly right: Teachers are severely underpaid and deserve a raise. This moment should help us understand why hundreds of thousands of teachers in multiple states hit picket lines over the last few years to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Our mass foray into homeschooling shows exactly how valuable school workers and public education are to an economy, and yet how unappreciated.
When school bells ring again, let’s make sure we restructure our state economies in ways that pay teachers what they are worth.
Teachers earned 11.1 percent less than other workers with comparable education and experience, according to the nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute. In a 2020 study on teacher compensation, Stanford University researcher Erik Hanushek found that entry salaries for teachers in 2016 had not changed, in real dollars, since 2000; average salaries for all teachers actually declined slightly over that period. And, as the cost of living soared, especially in some coastal cities, teachers’ pay didn’t keep up. Consequently, too many teachers cannot afford to live in the same cities in which they work.
To be clear, sexism that undervalues work that’s mostly done by women is a drag on the market. The value society places on us can be found in the salaries we receive. Women are overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs and even women in high-paying professions are paid less than their male counterparts, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of public school teachers who are women increased from 75 percent in 1999-2000 to 77 percent in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
As “women’s work” teaching has always been underpaid. But think how much more vulnerable most teachers would be without labor union representation.
This is a moment to rethink the attacks on unionism that have underpinned much of the school reform movement of the last two decades. The mandatory and voluntary social distancing measures, which have put the economy in a downward spiral, exposed how vulnerable non-unionized workers are in our increasingly gig-based economy. Small business owners — especially black-owners of small businesses — independent contractors who work as Lyft and Uber drivers, baggers in grocery stores, and service workers can’t afford to miss a few days of work let alone a few months, which is likely if we don’t flatten the curve relatively soon.
We’re lucky most of our teachers are protected by union contracts, even if they’re grossly underpaid. Because they generally have good benefits, retirement packages and representation through unions, educators have greater capacity to deal with the economic slowdown than ride-share drivers and part-time employees. Most K-12 teachers are still getting paychecks throughout the shutdown.
However, this doesn’t apply to all the workers our education system depends on. According to a 2016 press release from the U.S. Department of Education, “preschool teachers are paid less than mail order clerks, tree trimmers and pest control workers.” The release, announcing a report on child care worker compensation, added that “[c]hild care workers make less than hairdressers and janitors.” In addition, many part-time and contractual employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers, who are also critical to a well-functioning education system and economy, are also underpaid.
All labor has dignity. That dignity must be reflected in pay. The $30.75 billion state fiscal stabilization fund that Congress passed as part of the stimulus package will help our schools and colleges deal with coronavirus costs. But when the number of coronavirus cases subsides, we should not go back to normal: We must pay teachers more.
Educators deserve raises, and they deserved raises before the pandemic. When the virus subsides and people return to work, they will do so with widespread understanding of just how shortchanged our teachers have been for the work they do. The millions of parents with kids out of school right now are experiencing first-hand the fact that there are no real substitutes for trained, certified teachers. Amy McGrath, Democratic candidate for the Senate seat in Kentucky currently held by Mitch McConnel stated on Twitter on March 16, “At the end of the first day of my kids being out of school after our attempts at ‘homeschooling’ … my conclusion … teachers are superheroes. The end.”
I’m not sure what superheroes are supposed to be paid, but every teacher deserves a whole lot more than we’re currently paying them.
This story about paying teachers more was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.