Are the teachers in Wisconsin overpaid?
The numbers throughout the state seem to be fairly consistent: they average about $50,000 in salary and $24,000 in benefits (most of that being health care). Cost of living, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, is about at the national average.
It’s hard to argue this is excessive. Yes, teachers technically only work 9-9-1/2 months a year, but there’s lots of jobs with similar cyclical workloads (say, ice wholesalers or beachfront hotel owners). And anyone who receives healthcare for themselves and their family, even if they pay a high monthly premium, is getting a benefit package somewhere in the ballpark of what Wisconsin teachers do.
What accounts for the Republican anger, then? Republicans see teachers as a model case in government waste, inefficiency, and even laziness. A tenure system which makes it very difficult for teachers to be removed from their jobs, generous guaranteed benefits, a strong union which will go to the mattresses for its members, even the not-particularly deserving ones—it’s everything Republicans hate about government.
This vitriol against teachers is not going to get them anywhere—it sounds ugly, they don’t actually make that much money, and no one wants to hate teachers. Most of us have fond memories of good teachers from our youth.
In the segment the Daily Show ran on Monday, Stewart sarcastically plays up the silliness of attacking teachers for greed, while defending millionaire bankers. They play a clip: a Fox News correspondent dismisses the notion that teachers work hard or bring their work home, saying that his mom was a teacher and she was taking him along shopping at three in the afternoon when he was a kid. Stewart icily responds that his own mom was a very hard-working and underpaid teacher, and maybe that correspondent’s mom was just a “sh**ty teacher.”
Obviously, there are good and bad teachers, just like any other profession. But does having a job which is not necessarily high-paying, but does come with a high degree of security, tend to cause people to not work as hard, become mired in the status quo, and take their security for granted?
It can. I used to be in the Army, which has similar issues. You can’t get away with being lazy in the Army, but you can definitely get away with being a stubborn, difficult, inefficient bureaucrat. Because there is no bottom line–i.e., is your department making or losing money for the company—there is no absolute measure which rewards excellence. Some knowledge of how to game the system sometimes goes further than actually being good at your job. Waste is also a recurring issue, for the same reasons.
But anyone who thinks the private sector is free of waste or inefficiency is an idiot. It often comes in different forms—for example, in the field of sales, the impulse to process as quickly as possible to make your numbers look good, often leads to terrible leads that have no chance of actually bringing in revenue. And there is the always-present conundrum of an individual in a performance-based job attempting to make out like a bandit for him or herself, while actually hurting their company (like many sub-prime dealers did five years ago, making billions by buying up worthless securities).
Generally, I would say the secure environment of a job will exacerbate negative tendencies, but it won’t turn an otherwise hard-working person into a slothful waste of space. Smart, driven people will succeed in any field, public or private. But you can’t attempt to turn the entire public school system on its head by making it look like the private sector, because very different people are in these jobs. Sales people are in sales because they can live with a little less security, in exchange for the other things sales provides (an income based on performance, etc.) Many teachers view security as a high priority. And something tells me that, ultimately, you don’t want people best disposed to be lawnmower salesmen teaching your kids.