Letter to the Pilot

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Teacher privileges


Previously, "Iowa's Privileged Class" looked at differences between the wages of state employees and private sector employees, and university employees and private university employees... However, this installment instead looks at the difference in pay between the general private sector and one particular class of local government employees who are commonly thought of as being underpaid -government school teachers.

Nearly everyone holds school teachers in high regard because of the nature of their job, as well they should. However, this natural high regard also seems to shelter them from constructive criticism, and to allow them a platform for demands that tends to discourage disagreement. In no instance is this more obvious than the teaching union's (Iowa State Education Association) constant call for higher salaries.

The public is bombarded with woeful tales of how low a teacher's pay is in Iowa. But in reality, it is higher than many might think. According to data from Iowa's Department of Education, the average teacher in Iowa earned $36,482 for the 2000-2001 school year. By comparison, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the average pay for a job in the private sector in Iowa was only $27,500 in 2002. The average teacher is being paid 33 percent more than the average private sector worker in Iowa. This point is even more remarkable when it is considered that the private sector employee works for 12 months out of the year and the government school teacher works for only nine.

Yet, we are still led to believe that teachers are not only underpaid, but woefully underpaid. There are usually three different tactics used to make this point. The first is to compare the pay of Iowa teachers with the pay of teachers in other states. It is absolutely true that government school teachers are paid more in other states around the nation. It is equally true that these other states have a drastically higher cost of living than does Iowa... It seems to only be the state government employees that are paid so as to be some of the highest paid in the nation regardless of Iowa's lower cost of living. So, yes, if teachers take jobs in another state such as California where the average teacher salary is $52,480 a year, they will obviously make more than if they were to work in Iowa. However, they will also have to pay similarly more to live in that state. The median mortgage payment in Iowa is $821 per month. The median mortgage payment in California is $1,483 per month...

The second tactic used to make us believe that Iowa's teachers are underpaid is to point to the lower end of the pay scale, especially the minimum starting salary for teachers in Iowa. While it is true that those just starting out in the field do not receive the average pay, the same is true in any field anywhere... But what is partially deceptive, is the tendency to point to Iowa's minimum starting salary for teachers, which is $23,000 annually. This is partially deceptive because while 194 of Iowa's 375 school districts have chosen to adopt this minimum, very few of them actually use it. Of the 194 districts that have adopted this minimum, 130 have average full-time beginning salaries that exceed $23,000 a year. Every other school district in Iowa has adopted higher minimums -some as high as $30,846. Put simply, of Iowa's 375 school districts only 17 percent actually use the $23,000 minimum that is used as a reason to increase teacher's pay.

The third commonly used tactic is to point out how teachers are only paid for nine months and are unemployed the rest of the year. This particular point is very true; government school teachers only work for nine months out of the year. However, rather than making their plight worse, this fact makes their salary even better... the average government school teacher received 33 percent more pay for working 33 percent less time than the average private sector Iowa employee in 2000.

Iowa is facing one of its tightest budget crunches in recent memory... It does not seem wise to give more pay increases to one privileged class of government employees when (it) is already out-earning the average private-sector Iowa employee by such wide margins.

Steven B. Garrison,

Public Interest Institute