To the chagrin of some, the belt tightening numerous state governments are being forced to engage in is bringing some tough questions to light. When budget cuts are being made, institutions of learning often become collateral damage. Although no one finds this situation desirable, our current state of affairs and system demands it must be done.
Ugly situations such as the tussle between Governor Scott Walker and the teacher’s unions in Wisconsin are providing a small glimpse of what lies ahead, as keeping promises made through the years turns out to be an impossible task. When this discussion comes up, one of the oldest refrains we hear repeated religiously is that our public school teachers are underpaid. This has been said so many times and with such vigor that the wisdom of it has become all but conventional; questioning some things approaches futility once they become irreversibly ingrained.
Since good teachers are one of the most valuable assets a country can have, disputing their important contributions is unwise and unproductive. Any nation hoping to remain ahead of the pack will always have a need for qualified, competent teachers in order to truly stay great. But the debate has been framed to such a degree where anyone who even raises the idea of so much as tampering with collective bargaining arrangements is written off as an enemy of education who “has it in” for teachers.
Like many conservatives who dutifully denounce anyone who suggest military budget cuts as “weak on national defense” or “sympathetic to the Enemy”, so many on the Left do the same for education: an opponent of bloated education budgets must of course be a “knuckle dragger who hates math, science, and the arts.” (With such free and open debate in the United States, one must wonder why we are unable to get our fiscal house in order.)
Both of these claims are specious and demonstrate how both sides of the political aisle shield from criticism the parts of government they would fight tooth and nail to prevent cuts from occurring in. But Department of Education funding is a subject whose discussion alone could be voluminous; all this drama over state and local school budgets in and of itself brings up an important answer to the “Are teachers underpaid” question/declarative statement.
The truth is, we will never truly know whether teachers are being overpaid or underpaid as long as public money is being used to provide their salaries.
Complaining that teachers are underpaid or shouting about too much pay (which I am not sure I have actually heard) misses the point: there is no way to know the answer. If education was truly a private marketplace, as many libertarians and some conservatives hope to establish, we would then know the true market price for sharp, committed teachers. Although it is not a government monopoly as some claim, state (and to some degree, federal) governments are so heavily involved that establishing a true market value for teacher pay is impossible.
This same concept holds true for military personnel, sanitation workers, and border patrol; all the elements of work funded by government lack the same discipline brought about by floating prices and voluntary exchange.
Do they perform a crucial service? Of course; that is not the question. Do we have a shortage of teachers that are actually teaching for the right reasons, motivated by a servant’s heart alone? Many think so, but that again is not relevant to the argument. Legislators, unions, and school boards can fight ceaselessly over salaries and benefits, but that is just it: the salaries and benefits are being arbitrarily determined, not allowed to coordinate in the way capitalist-centric competition would require. This is the reason people are often so unhappy with government services, particularly those at the federal even more than the state or local level: compensation is being determined not by voluntary competition, but by harnessing the force of law to divide up resources. When egos come into play, salaries and benefits are no longer being determined by impersonal means.
Americans at one point understood this, desiring privatization in most elements of daily life and reserving government power for things few and far between; it is no longer clear that this same spirit is alive.
Add to this mix the presence of teachers’ unions willing to fight scorched earth battles over the slightest of reforms calibrated to make education more competitive; this muddies the waters even more when it comes to determining teacher salaries and benefit packages. Suggestions like school vouchers and merit pay; you know, the types of ideas that might pop up during any free market-oriented brainstorming session, are fought tooth and nail by entrenched bureaucracy that has caused much of the inefficiency we see in America’s school systems. Opening up education to more competition and less suffocating regulation will move us toward a marketplace in learning, one that is bound to once again produce the most informed and problem-solving minds in the world.
Only then will we be able to truly know whether our teachers are being underpaid, overpaid, or being compensated sufficiently; until that time, the battle needs to be over returning freedom of choice to all levels of American education.