Presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-CA) recently proposed to raise the salaries of teachers across the nation by $13,500. She cited the many recent teacher protests over inadequate wages and argued teachers’ experience and credentials should qualify them for higher pay.
While any teacher would welcome a hefty raise, Harris’s proposal is obvious pandering with no hope of success. The plan would cost at least $315 billion and completely override local and state authorities, plus it treats all teachers and their schools as a vast homogenous constituency to be bought off. Furthermore, it’s debatable whether this would really improve public education, seeing that the plan fails to set any expectations for educators to merit this raise.
On a deeper level, this proposal reveals the way Democrats view teachers. In their eyes, teachers are helpless victims in need of assistance from unions and government welfare. Rather than proud autonomous professionals hoping to make a difference in their communities and win recognition, they are seen as a mass of insecure weaklings fearing all forms of accountability and amenable to cheap rhetoric and large-scale bribery.
The Right Often Isn’t Much More Appealing to Teachers
Unfortunately, the typical conservative rebuttal to Harris’s plan isn’t much better—and politically speaking, it’s much worse. The editors at National Review rightly call out Harris’s vote-buying and lack of realism, but then argue teachers do not deserve raises but the opposite. In essence, they claim the work of teachers is less valuable than that of pretty much any other job, and teacher certifications are no more credible than “the backs of cereal boxes.”
Only out-of-touch intellectuals who work at conservative think tanks would think it a good idea to antagonize 3.6 million educators and, by extension, the 56 million students in their charge. Considering these two views of teachers—one that characterizes them as victims in need of welfare, and the other that characterizes them as overpaid, undereducated, unproductive bureaucrats burdening communities—it’s easy to see why most teachers vote Democrat.
Besides the political damage this characterization inflicts, it also undermines the argument it’s supposed to help—that of school choice. If teachers are not paid fairly (whether too much or too little), it doesn’t necessary follow that giving parents vouchers to choose their child’s school will change anything. In fact, if teachers are as incompetent and inconsequential as these conservatives say they are, then it seems much more likely that teachers will see their salaries cut for the sake of efficiency and profitability.
After all, why would a school hire a teacher with credentials and experience when it could hire a graduate student who could do the same work for much less money? This has already been happening at the college level as adjunct professors continue to replace tenured faculty. Fortunately, there is an answer to this outcome that should better satisfy students, teachers, and school choice proponents: the conventional wisdom on K-12 education is wrong, and school choice really does have the potential to increase both teacher quality and pay.
School Choice Will Help Boost Teacher Pay
Both liberals and conservatives tend to work from the oversimplified definition of teachers as mediocre professionals. The only real difference between the two is that liberals want to reward this mediocrity and conservatives want to punish it. However, teachers are so much more than this caricature, and those who have any familiarity with education understand this well.
In truth, there are five main facets to teaching: scholarship, instruction, management, relationships, and wisdom. The first two facets—scholarship and instruction—can be measured by checking certificates and degrees, years of experience, reviewing test scores, and doing class observations. The other three facets defy measurement, but have more to do with a teacher’s effectiveness than the first two.
Excellent teachers know their material and how to communicate that knowledge and give useful feedback, plus how to keep their classes orderly (which can be particularly hard at certain campuses), have a good rapport with their students (which, again, can also be hard depending on the students), and make the right decisions at the right times and plan accordingly.
Without the competition that comes with school choice, there is little incentive for teachers to be excellent. Rather, there is more incentive to be the opposite since excellent teachers raise expectations of other teachers and require more attention from administrators. Such was the case, for example, for celebrity calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, who, even after achieving the miracle of turning barrio thugs into advanced mathematicians, was eventually forced to resign because of jealous teachers and spineless administrators.
Nevertheless, school choice could still discourage excellent teaching if school boards value profit and marketing over delivering a quality product. Parents could expect many schools to try to draw in already-motivated students with flashy advertisements, gimmicky labels, and high test scores even if their school is really little more than a test-prep center with untrained adults passing out workbooks and playing on their phones while students teach themselves—which describes plenty of “successful” charter and private schools.
Ideally, school reformers would find a better model than the public sector that punishes excellence or the business world that misidentifies it. Instead, they should follow the world of sports, which takes into account both the tangible and intangible virtues of excellent athletes as well as their respective situations.
Consider a basketball player like LeBron James. He is an excellent athlete who puts up amazing numbers every game, and those measurable statistics result from the unmeasurable things he does—his strength, endurance, agility, and finesse. He also was able to distinguish himself on both a terrible team, the Cleveland Cavaliers in the mid-00s, and a star-studded team, the Miami Heat in the early teens.
In many ways, LeBron James is the Jaime Escalante of basketball—though one could argue that Escalante achieved an even greater feat, doing far more with far less. Yet James earns more than $35 million a year while Escalante moved back to Bolivia and died of cancer in 2010.
There’s perhaps no greater tragedy than seeing an excellent teacher burn out and leave the profession, leave the campus that needs him most, or leave the classroom to become a bureaucrat in the higher echelons of a school district, but this is what public education encourages. It would be like James and all the other All-Stars leaving the court for coaching and management positions, abandoning their fans and hometown for a championship dynasty (something that, because of counterproductive salary caps, actually does happen for stars in the NBA), or quitting altogether.
It should be the opposite, and it can be the opposite. For those who scoff at the idea of compensating excellent teachers like excellent athletes, they should ponder Socrates’ famous declaration in Plato’s “Apology,” explaining why he deserved an enormous fortune instead of execution: “he [the athlete] only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality.” True, the court still sentenced Socrates to death, but Socrates could rightly claim credit for doing infinitely more for his students and his society than any popular athlete in his time. Generously compensated and highly regarded, it is not unreasonable to think that great teachers today could achieve something similar.
If conservatives and school choice proponents made this their goal—that is, finding ways to increase teacher compensation and quality through competition and properly recognizing good teachers—they would be part of something far more consequential than deriding Harris and the millions of teachers she aims to please. In the sense that it would promote excellence, strengthen Western civilization, limit government involvement, and expand freedom for both teachers and students, it would also be far more conservative.