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Are Teachers Underpaid? Let’s Find Out


A teacher in South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience earns $33,600 per year, which is less than the average auto-repair worker. So says Vox. This grievance against salary injustice is nothing new, of course, but this particular example comes to us from a new national study by the Center for American Progress, which details the chickenfeed teachers are forced to subsist on as they altruistically keep your hopeless children literate.

Teachers are underpaid. In politics, and also in everyday life, this is almost universally accepted. Everyone admires teachers. Everyone wants good teachers for their children. And, naturally, liberals believe contrasting these salaries will emphasize the irrationality and unfairness of the marketplace.

But it doesn’t.  And the first, and most obvious, reason it doesn’t is that teachers actually do quite well for themselves considering the economic realities of their profession.

A 2012 study conducted by the Heritage Foundation found that workers who switched from private employment to teaching most often took an hourly pay increase, while most of those who left teaching for the private sector took pay decreases. More specifically, a few years back, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Compensation Survey numbers, the Manhattan Institute looked at the hourly pay of public school teachers in the top 66 metropolitan areas in the country. It found that teachers pulled in around $34.06 per hour. Journalists, who have vital job of protecting American democracy, earned 24 percent less. Architects, 11 percent less. Psychologists, 9 percent. Chemists, 5 percent.

It’s also worth asking what an average auto mechanic –a person that CAP and Vox intimates is undeserving of a teacher-level compensation – might be willing to give up for the security of tenure? What would a guaranteed pension and a lifetime of health care coverage be worth to a plumber? Considering how hard unions fight to keep these things, I imagine they’re worth quite a bit.

Then there is the matter of demand. Or, lack of it. According to Andrew Coulson at the Cato Institute, since 1970 the public school workforce has roughly doubled from 3.3 million to 6.4 million (predominately teachers), while over the same period the enrollment of children rose by only 8.5 percent – or a rate that was 11 times slower. Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that schools are training twice as many K-5 elementary school teachers as they need every year.

With this kind of surplus, the question we really should be asking is: how are teacher salaries so high?

The second, and less obvious problem, with Vox’s mechanic-teacher comparison is the snobbish suggestion — thrown around by teachers unions and their allies all the time — that working with your hands is less meaningful or valuable to society than working with kids.

Now, auto technicians make an average of $35,790 nationally, with 10 percent of them earning more than $59,590, according to BLS data. According to a number of experts from large car companies, there will be a serious shortage of mechanics in the near future, as demand expected to grow 17 percent from 2010 to 2020. That’s 848,200 jobs, according to USA Today. And judging from the information, mechanics are asked to learn increasingly high-tech skills to be effective at their jobs.  It wouldn’t be surprising if their salaries soon outpaced those of teachers.

“The bottom line,” says TAC, “is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence.”

Alas, neither liberal think tanks nor explainer sites have the capacity to determine the worth of human capital. And contrasting the pay of a person with a predetermined government salary to one earned in a competitive marketplace tells us little.  A public school teacher’s compensation is determined by a contract negotiated long before many of them had even decided to teach. These contracts hurt the earning potential of good teachers and undermine education system. And it has nothing to do with what anyone “deserves.”

Example: though we produce too many teachers in general, there isn’t nearly enough math and science teachers. Salaries do not reflect this reality. If math teachers pulled in what they were worth – say, for argument’s sake, $70,000 – the problem would be corrected. But that would also mean plenty of other teachers would be making exactly what they deserve. And that’s what the NEA’s been fighting for 40 or so years.

So if teachers believe they aren’t making what they’re worth, and they may well be right about that, let’s free them from union constraints and let them find out what the job market has to offer. Until then we can’t really know. Because a bachelor’s degree isn’t a dispensation from the vagaries of economic reality. And teaching isn’t the first step towards sainthood. Regardless of what you’ve heard.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.