As a teacher, even as a substitute teacher, I’m banking on my union to protect my rights. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m presenting a biased view; I’m part of a very strong union that has fought for our health benefits and salary increases over the not-so-recent years. I won’t say that I think everything the union does is right, especially when they protect teacher’s who really shouldn’t be teaching anymore due to performance or other legal issues. Actually, as a soon-to-be newly credentialed teacher where unions protect the tenured, they actually hinder my possibility of getting a job. However, the union is still a needed entity for bargaining rights because without them, teachers and other public workers would be making much less and with fewer benefits.  In Wisconsin, the Republicans feel that the unions need to be done with because they are costly; unions protect their employees’ retirement benefits, the one golden nugget in a sea of low- to mid-wage earning professions.


Let’s be honest, taxes pay the salaries of public workers. Tax payers who are not public workers dislike this salary structure because they don’t like the idea of paying for someone elses’ salary. Yet, most tax payers want their children to have access to free education, their roads to be paved and their trash to be picked up. And most tax payers would agree that they want quality education for their children which means well-educated teachers. Coming from the standpoint of a teacher, let’s look at the salary and cost break down to see if tax payers are really getting the short end of the stick.

Using PayScale.com as my salary guide and www.cta.ct.gov (compares states in the Northeast) as my teacher retirement guide, here is a look at the some figures:

  • National Average of a teacher’s salary: $41,000 (I estimated between elementary and high school salaries)
  • Number of teacher’s in US per 2000 Census Bureau: 6.2 million
  • Years of education the teacher has obtained: 5-years in an undergraduate program. (4 in some states)
  • Average pension of a teacher with 30 years of service at age 60: $28,579 (nothing to be jealous of!) Many teachers are ineligible for Social Security benefits as their pensions are in lieu of SS.

I can’t speak for other public employees, but from a teacher’s standpoint we are one of the lowest paid professions compared to our amount of education. The naysayers would now cluck, “Well no one made you become a teacher.” No, I wasn’t forced into teaching, I really enjoy it. But the benefit of enjoyment won’t protect me in retirement. If unions begin to dissolve, as in Wisconsin, my fear is teachers and other public workers will have limited negotiating rights, their salaries will fall just above the minimum wage bracket, our health care benefits will be cut (we are constantly around sniffling children), and our retirement will be bleak. Is this the future of our nation’s educational system? With states raising the bar on educational performance through state tests, how soon will it be before teachers become a dying profession? For who in their right mind would select teaching for a paltry wage when one can make more money as a legal secretary with a high school diploma?

As states grapple with their budget deficit’s, education will continue to suffer. Until our nation comes up with a new source of funding for our tax-based ‘free’ educational system (most of this funding is through property taxes), teachers and students will bear the brunt of ill-spent funds through layoff’s and increased class sizes.

Do you despise paying for teacher’s salaries? Would you like to see the unions dissolved? What would you propose to solve this problem? Are teacher’s under-paid or over-paid?

19 Comments

  1. Unions bring different images to different people! When I think Union for someone who’s going to teach my kid, I’m for it!

    When I think union as in UAW (auto union) and their outrageous demands, I’m against it.

    I’m not for completely doing away with unions, nor do I like the way that Koch stooge Walker is going about this.

    But some change is required especially when tax payers are on the hook for underfunded pensions.

    • @MoneyCone – Unfortunately, those pension funds were mismanaged. I know that unions make promises about pensions and those promises are basically falling apart, but employees did contribute money into their pension funds; many in lieu of social security. It will be a difficult and painful process to phase them out, especially since employees may be at different stages of their career. It’s almost like they’ll need a sliding scale during the possible transition period where those close to retirement would still get their promised pensions, those somewhere in the middle would get 50% of their pension and begin contributing to a 403(b), and those in the beginning of their careers would be eligible to cash out the pension funds they’ve contributed and move them to a 403(b). I’m sure it would be even more complicated than this, but you get the picture.

  2. In a bad economy, some want to focus on a bad guy because it makes us feel better. Teachers are not the problem with state budgets! The problem is much deeper. It starts with elected people who are not there long enough to really have a long lasting vision or suffer the consequences of their deeds. Also, politics enters into this with pleasing the contributors versus what is right for the people.
    As a teacher in Los Angeles for ten (10) years, I only received one (1) increase besides the salary steps I earned. Future increases are non existent because of the budgetary issues and my salary table offers a couple hundred dollars every five (5) years. The union represents us on other issues and protects us from a board and a mayor whose only motivation is cutting expenses and political reasons.
    I am not complaining per se, but I am tired of being a target. So when you take the easy way of no tax increases for education, blaming teachers for your child’s poor performance and blaming unions for budget problems, you will have problems. Do you think student scores went down because of bad teachers? Where are the parents in this equation? The parents who care and have the means send their kids to private school. I know because I did that too. Maybe education should be changed, but not cut. We need a good education system so we can compete globally.

    • @Krantcents – Amen to that. I think it’s ironic that tax paying citizens complain about an increase in property tax, even the $8 extra monthly payment that was on the last ballot, but then turn around and complain about how crummy our educational system is. I’m beginning to think that people just don’t realize that their property tax dollars are the main source of income for education. It’s too bad that education is funded this way, but until the entire education system gets an overhaul, taxes will have to be increased for education to improve.

  3. Mr Credit Card Reply

    I think the real issue the public has is that the “define benefit” pension plans is simply not a sustainable proposition going forward. I think most tax payers simply want the unions to at least pay a decent amount for health care coverage and perhaps slowly switch to a 401k type plan for their pension. I’ve heard a principal “proudly say” she contributes $8 a month to her health insurance. And I can tell you that our family plan cost over a thousand dollars a month. So hearing a principal argue she contributed $8 is a joke.

    With the UAW and steel industry, the unions simply priced themselves out of the global market. And if they are fine with that, then so be it cos private companies can go bust. But when tax payers are saddled with budget deficits and realizing that pension obligations is a ticking time bomb, that when folks get upset.

    They say after the financial crisis that Wall Street cannot self-regulate. I would say the same for unions. Are they needed – yes. We don’t want employers abusing their workers. But left unchecked…..

    • @Mr. Credit Card – I agree that union benefits are often quite good and may not be cost effective in the long run. However, eliminating the unions all together, or eliminating our pensions will cause a massive problem for those half way through their career. I know that I haven’t been contributing to social security for over 10 years now, instead I contribute to a pension plan (I actually didn’t have a choice in the matter.) This means when it’s time for me to retirement, I will receive very, very little, if anything, from social security. My only security net will be my pension and what ever retirement accounts I’ve contributed to (I’m working on this goal this year.) So, if one option is to switch from pension plan to 403(b) plan, they would have to “cash out” the amounts that workers have contributed over the span of their career. And I’m guessing that states would freak out over this since they are in such dire straights and probably don’t have the money to do so, but it would be the only fair thing to do – give us back our pension money so we can find other investment options instead.

  4. @eemusings – Thanks for pointing out those errors! I’m not an English teacher, but I do normally try to check my writing. As for our union, I don’t think I had an option when I became a teacher to opt out. However, I think our union protects our negotiation rights and fights for smaller class sizes, though lately (due to severe budget problems) we’ve been losing. 🙁

  5. Mr Credit Card Reply

    Little House – interesting proposition you have there – giving back the lump sum contribution with presumable some interest. Bad in the short run, but I think the financial markets will be ok with this because it may mean states have to borrow money now, but the obligation goes away long term.

    I must stress again that unions have a role to play. But they seemed to have negotiated benefits that is on hindsight not sustainable.

    Which brings up an interesting topic. If defined benefit plans are simply not sustainable, then the whole concept of retirement may be simply a pipe dream for most folks. From the looks of it, most of us are way undersaving!

    • @Mr. Credit Card – I agree that unions are often dead set on retaining the pension benefits no matter what and sometimes can’t get past this issue when negotiating contracts.

      As for retirement being a pipe dream, I hope not! But you are right, people aren’t saving enough. And I’ve heard teachers close to retirement say that their pension is the only retirement plan they have. I don’t want to be in that boat, so this year I’m getting serious about my retirement. I don’t want to find out later that my pension was pulled out from under me and I’m dead broke by age 65. SCARY!

  6. My husband is a teacher, and my mother is a staunch Republican, so I’m sort of caught in the middle of this debate and am gladly taking no sides. 🙂

    I see how unions serve a purpose, for sure, but I also see how some of their practices are in need of serious updates (like the tenure and pension issues as have been mentioned).

    I don’t understand how people can be upset at teacher salaries, or even benefits, because the structure of their employment is just different than the private world. I think though, that people expect better results for better pay and possibly aren’t seeing that (?) I don’t know.

    • @Lindy Mint – I can see some people’s view that the results, as in test scores, make teachers look like they’re not doing their jobs. However, having administered state tests before, those questions are tricky! States expect an 8-year-old to take the information they’ve learned throughout the year, then answer questions based on logical reasoning. I’m sorry, but many of the questions on these tests are not straight-forward questions; they’re meant to “trick” the student. They are also lengthy tests, so we just hope that our students had a good night’s sleep and ate a decent breakfast before entering our classroom (things that are not within our control.) As for pensions and tenure, yes these two issues need to be addressed, but not through public humiliation.

  7. retirebyforty Reply

    I think teachers definitely deserve their pension. As you point out teachers are underpaid and they need help once their career is over. I still believe in public school and will send my kid to the system unless it deteriorate a lot in the next 5-10 years. As long as the parents are involve, I think public school is good.

    • @Retireby40 – That’s the key to student success – parent involvement! It makes a huge difference. I just read that higher achieving students have more “adult” time – they converse with their parents more frequently (building vocabulary), they have more support out of school, and they often have non-academic hobbies that their parents support. Makes a big difference.

  8. Amanda L Grossman Reply

    I work for the state government of Texas as an Environmental Investigator. I don’t think we have a union, but we do have a group that “fights” for us. We don’t make much even though we have a huge amount of technical expertise, and so I assume that other public employees don’t either (we actually make less than teachers in Texas).

    Then again, the car dealer unions have soured my opinion a bit about unions in general.

    • @Amanda Grossman – Most public employees have lower salaries, unless you’re the superintendent of schools. Our superintendent makes $300,000 a year. An average teacher makes $45,000 a year. I think there’s a huge discrepancy here.

  9. Mr Credit Card Reply

    Just want to chime in again. Teachers are a particularly tough case because it is hard to evaluate performance. Teach in a better neighborhood and you tend to get middle class students who tend to (through self selection bias) to do better that one in an inner city. So how do you even evaluate them? Very tough question. In sales, it’s easy. You either sell or don’t. No sales = no commissions.

    For detectives, it’s easier. How good are they? How many cases have they solved. Plumbers who work for the state who are unionized can be measure by cost, quality and timeliness.

    For teachers, until massive efforts (like the one by the Gates Foundation) is put into finding out how to “teach” a teacher to teach better in a particular subject to a particular grade, I can understand why they would resist “evaluations” which can really be subjective. On the other hand, many evaluations are subjective in the private sector as well!!??

    But like the banks and mortgage brokers, things like seniority system, union insisting on going on with outdated and inefficient work processes (ever wonder why some states will never be considered by anyone to hold a convention? Answers – Unions insisting on doing things a certain way which adds costs to organizers) have harmed society. So while, they have protected their members, one can argue that they have over-protected themselves at a great cost to society as a whole with some of the more jealous rules and benefits they have gotten for themselves.

  10. My local teacher’s unit has been in negotiations for a long time. I’m on the volunteer board at work so I deal with many of them and the superintendent. I absolutely support paying teachers a living wage and I would support paying a higher salary in lieu of other benefits. If pension is an issue than pay the teacher more so she can contribute to her own retirement plan.

    Right now in my district they are debating things like dress code and that just puts me in a tizzy. Where I work, I’m told what the dress code is, I don’t try to use the union to bargain it in. I think the disadvantage of unions is they use it as a platform to debate every little thing instead of just focusing on the most important stuff. In my opinion, wearing flip flops to work (true topic of debate) shouldn’t be a topic of debate.

    • @First Gen American – I whole-heartedly agree that not everything needs to go through the union and if teacher’s were paid more, they could fund their own pension plans instead. But it’s an industry that is primarily made up of women. Women still make abut 25% less than men across the board. I really think that might have something to do with lower pay. As for your union’s dress code discussion, it really should be determined by the school district, not the union. Sounds like a silly topic to be discussed.

  11. @Heather – My brother-in-law is a teacher in AZ and I know it’s really difficult without union support there. I think that unions get a bad rap because they are associated with the auto factory unions, but what people don’t realize is that teachers are part of unions too. Without their support, we get stomped on. We’re primarily a female dominated profession, and I think this is part of the problem; women across the board make less than men. I’m guessing that if teaching were a male-dominated profession, teachers would be making much higher salaries and be revered instead of slandered in the news (like the LA Times article did a few months back revealing test scores and making connections to the least effective and most effective teachers).

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