Guest Opinion

Thursday, August 1, 2002

Are teachers as valuable as a shortstop?

For decades, critics of American culture have written about the sheer insanity of paying a teacher for one year's work what an athlete earns in a day.

What utter madness underwrites a culture, these critics aver, that prizes entertainment over education, a society that literally values taking our minds off of important matters rather than learning these important matters in the first place.

The utter irrationality of it all recently was captured by the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team who laments the egregiously high salaries he and his fellow owners pay to players. Notice that this man is actually undermining his own employees as well as their product. Notice, too, that the man in question is the same person who agreed to compensate one player, All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez, known as A-Rod, an amount of money that exceeded the amount the owner paid a few years earlier to buy the entire team.

But the story isn't finished.

In negotiating his contract for more than $220 million, Rodriguez requested compensation over and above his gigantic salary. Specifically, he sought to make the case that, because people would now flock to the Texas ballpark essentially to watch him perform, he was, therefore, entitled to a percentage of the money fans would spend at concession booths. If he was the main attraction, why shouldn't he grab a chunk of all the organization's revenues?

At first blush, this last demand gives a whole new meaning to the word "chutzpah." To get paid $20 million a year to play a game over six months isn't enough? Why, entire school systems annually operate for far less money. What has happened that a person, and his agent, could even conceive of such greed? Does this mean that movie stars will demand a share of the popcorn and candy revenues?

At second blush, however, the Rodriguez proposal actually provides a perfect solution to the unconscionable disparity in the salaries of educators and entertainers. The case is being made that what I do is worth a certain amount of money, an amount normally defined as my salary. But now, in addition, what you are able to do in response to what I have done might generate a certain amount of revenue that I claim is due me because I have made it possible for you to generate this income.

Rodriguez gets his money whether or not people actually come to the ballpark. (He also gets his money whether he plays well or not.) But your presence at the hot dog stand, he claims, is also worth something to him. So, let's translate this into the world of teachers. After all, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott has written, we are what we learn.

Your ability to make sense of the words in this essay, as well as the mathematical references contained in it, is neither a natural evolutionary step nor a fortuitous accident. Someone taught you to read and someone taught you the fundamentals of arithmetic.

Those someones earned a salary, albeit a pitifully low one. But now you are able to do something because of what those teachers did years ago. So, following on the Rodriguez demand, those teachers, in addition to their salary, ought to be entitled to a percentage of the money you earn as a result of being able to read and manipulate numbers.

All that is left to determine is a reasonable percentage of your income due those teachers.

I propose a modest one-half of 1 percent of your annual pre-tax income if any reading or mathematical skill is required in your employment. If, for example, you earn $40,000 a year, you must pay your reading teacher $200, twice that amount if she taught you elementary mathematics as well. The amount should not be considered a tax, merely a compensation for a skill that makes it possible for you to earn a living.

Given this new reimbursement structure, no new taxes need ever be raised for increasing teacher salaries, and one can imagine that most all teachers, because they have all taught skills we presently employ in generating our incomes, will receive hundreds of thousands of dollars annually over and above their salaries.

Of course, this means that educators might earn more money than entertainers and that schools might be perceived as being more significant than ballparks, but I think Americans could adjust.

To people who find this proposal ludicrous, if not outright insane, I would wonder how they feel about that Rodriguez contract or, more generally, how they feel about a culture that first values entertainers far more than educators and then turns around and claims that people in the world hate us because they envy our values.

The author is a professor of education at Boston University. Courtesy of the LA Times and Washington Post.