You’re a bright young college student with good grades, and you’ll be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in a couple months. You’ve spent years and years in preparation for this one moment -- the moment when you finally enter the workforce. So now, coming down to the wire, you’re forced to make a decision -- what career will you pursue? You’ve always been interested in teaching, but the starting salary is awfully low in comparison to other occupations you’re qualified for. What’s a person to do?
This dilemma has been playing out for years and years. Even to the point where the common perception seems to be that teaching is more of an avocation than anything else; the idea is that to become a teacher, you automatically have to endure the rigors of low wages, just as a normal part of the job. And then secondly, that another requisite job qualification is that teachers must be extremely dedicated. Conventional wisdom has it that low pay and dedication seem to go hand and hand, and that somehow, the combination is a necessary or perhaps even integral part of the “teaching experience.”
That the wages are low is no illusion: the starting salary for first year teachers in Washington state is just $22,950 per year. In comparison, that’s less than the average entry-level pay in state government for accountants ($26,316), registered nurses ($25,680), microbiologists ($30,264), environmental engineers ($31,752), computer operations analysts ($25,580), and geologists ($25,116) -- as well as a myriad of other entry-level positions, that like teaching, require essentially just a four year degree. For the purposes of comparison, it should be noted that generally, salaries of state workers lag about 13% behind the prevailing private sector rates for similar job classes, so the examples of jobs given above would pay even more in private sector employment -- all which means that the disparity between teachers pay as it stacks up against other professions is actually greater than it appears above. Is that fair?
Not according to the Washington Education Association (WEA). That and other pay-related issues have been highly publicized in recent weeks, mainly by the series of one-day strikes the union staged all over the state. The focus of the job actions has been to pressure the legislature into giving teachers more money.
According to the WEA, aside from the low starting pay which makes it hard to attract qualified applicants, the basis for the current dispute is that because of inflation, teachers pay overall has fallen about 15.5% since 1992.
Apparently, the teachers efforts have paid off, at least in part: last Sunday, the legislature approved a budget that provides a fifteen percent raise paid over two years for beginning teachers, a ten percent raise for top-paid teachers, and all other teachers would get an eight percent raise.
This is a good start, but the lawmakers should find a way to fully fund additional raises to end the disparity caused by inflation.
Raising wages for teachers is not a universal cure. When asked, almost everyone can come up with a long list of acute problems in the schools that need our immediate attention: Low test scores, truancy, violence, low graduation rates, gangs, drugs, on and on. And it’s just as certain that very few of these problems can be solved by simply throwing money at them. But in this one instance, in this small but important part of the equation, the problem can be solved with money.
It all comes back to the concept that you get what you pay for. Teachers are the single most important part of the education system. These people shouldn’t be forced to choose between a career in teaching, or a career in something else they like less, but that pays better. No, if you want to find and retain the best teachers, you’ll have to pay them at least what they could get elsewhere. And if we don’t make the salaries competitive, then the best and brightest will most certainly leave. As such, this is particularly critical right now, with the extremely competitive job market caused by the present low unemployment levels.
I believe that education is not an area where we can afford to skimp. We shouldn’t be afraid to spend money where it will do good. The future and fate of our country lies in the teacher’s hands. The better educated our children become, the better our state will be able to compete in a national and global scale, and the more secure will be our future.
So what’s it going to be? Do you want our children to be able to compete nationally and globally? If so, then talk to your legislators. Let them know the importance of our children’s education. The decision is yours.