By Sam Pizzigati / CounterPunch
How can we measure the work a particular society truly values? Take-home pay can make as good a yardstick as any: The lower an occupation’s compensation, the lower the esteem a society is showing for that occupation.
In the United States, our pay data show, no profession faces a reality that makes this link plainer — and uglier — than teaching.
All sorts of metrics can help us measure the level of our society’s esteem for the teaching profession. Are young people, for instance, interested in becoming teachers? Between 2008 and 2019, teacher ed enrollments in the United States plunged by over a third. Are current teachers feeling valued? Between 2019 and 2022, teacher retirements and resignations rose 40 percent.
But nothing says “esteem” more directly than paychecks, and, by that metric, American society has for years been systematically devaluing the work teachers do. Between 1996 and 2021, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto detailed last August, average teacher weekly wages adjusted for inflation rose a miniscule $29. Over the same years, inflation-adjusted weekly wages for other college graduates rose over 15 times faster, up $445.
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What has this shortfall in overall compensation and esteem meant for America’s schools? In the current school year, the U.S. Department of Education reports, every single state in the union has reported teacher shortages, with 46 states citing shortages of science teachers and 44 missing math teachers.
Overall, some 36,000 teaching positions nationwide are going vacant, with at least 163,000 additional positions getting “filled” with unqualified teachers. Both these numbers, concludes a study by researchers at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, represent “conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally.”
Some observers of our contemporary education scene are contending, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond noted last month, that the teacher resignations and vacancies we’re experiencing shouldn’t particularly concern us because they appear mostly in certain subjects and parts of the country. But that amounts to arguing, Darling-Hammond observes, that a house isn’t on fire “because only three of its five rooms are burning.”
Our educational house most definitely is burning, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders told a town hall on America’s teacher pay crisis at the U.S. Capitol earlier this week.
“I want the day to come, sooner than later, when we are going to attract the best and brightest young people in our country into teaching,” said Sanders. “I want those young people to be proud of the profession that they have chosen.”
All teachers, the Vermont senator believes, should be earning at least $60,000 a year. Some 43 percent of teachers currently fall short of that mark. In Florida, the average teacher earns less than $50,000, just $49,583.
How do the bargain-basement paychecks that go to teachers compare with compensation for other professions? Not well at all. In Florida, accountants make $76,320 annually, 54 percent more than teachers. And software developers in Florida average $105,200, 112 percent more.
But the most stunning pay contrasts show up when we contrast teacher pay to the compensation of our nation’s most generously rewarded power suits.
“The top 15 hedge fund managers on Wall Street,” notes Senator Sanders, “make more money in a single year than every kindergarten teacher in America — over 120,000 teachers.”
Sanders will soon be introducing legislation, the Pay Teachers Act, to ensure that all teachers make at least $60,000 annually and guarantee significantly higher pay for educators “who have made teaching their profession — working on the job for 10, 20, 30 years.”
Where could the funding for this teacher pay revolution come from? From a tax revolution.
Public schools across the nation have historically relied on the local property taxes that average Americans pay. Property taxes today are still supplying 40 percent of total public education funding. These taxes all fall on the primary source of wealth for average families, the owner-occupied home. But America’s rich hold most of their wealth in financial instruments, a category of wealth that essentially goes untaxed, even after death, since the current federal estate tax asks so little from families sitting on grand fortunes.
Senator Sanders has proposed a fix: a thorough-going reform of the federal estate tax. Rich married couples last year could exempt $23.4 million of their fortunes from all estate tax and pay no more than a 40 percent tax on any dollar of wealth above that. The Sanders legislation — the “For the 99.5 Percent Act” — would lower that estate tax exemption to $7 million per married couple and up the minimal estate tax rate on wealth above that level to 45 percent.
Wealthier estates would face even higher rates, with wealth over $1 billion facing a 65 percent estate tax.
The Sanders legislation also takes aim at current loopholes that lower the rate of estate tax that the families of dead deep pockets actually face. Over his legislation’s first 10 years, Senator Sanders notes, the federal treasury would collect an additional $450 billion in estate tax revenue, “precisely how much the Teacher Pay Act would cost.”
“Let’s be clear,” the senator added at the U.S. Capitol teacher pay town hall Monday. “If we can provide over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and large corporations, please don’t tell me that we cannot afford to make sure that every teacher in America is paid at least $60,000 a year.”