Teacher Pay Is the Smartest Investment Schools Can Make - Voice of San Diego

Opinion

Teacher Pay Is the Smartest Investment Schools Can Make

Schools are meant to help human beings grow, and you need quality human beings in the building to make that happen.

Tabatha Footman-Robertson is a fifth grade teacher at Edison Elementary. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As a teacher, I had a strong reaction to “Districts Couldn’t Stop Raising Employee Pay – Now Kids Will Pay the Price.” I have more than $50,000 in student loans and earn enough money to be considered low income in San Diego, yet according to the piece, teachers’ pay increases were misguided.

The argument overlooks what makes a successful school: an experienced, talented and consistent team. Schools are meant to help human beings grow, and you need quality human beings in the building to make that happen. And ultimately, you get what you pay for. Teacher shortages continue to grow, enrollment in schools of education is down and turnover of principals alarmingly high. If anything, we need to increase educator pay with local, state and federal dollars.

I’ve felt the pinch of teacher pay firsthand, and it pushed me to leave the profession. I originally entered teaching in 2011 through the nonprofit organization Teach for America. After teaching for two wonderful years in Arkansas, I quit. I quit for a lot of reasons, but a big one was the pay. I also had dreams of becoming a lawyer, where I understood debt to be high, but paychecks (thankfully) to be higher. The same cannot be said of education, where teachers make less than professionals with comparable education in private education jobs.

There are other faults in the argument. It suggests teachers are paid too much, but this argument rests on the premise that a pay increase for any profession higher than the regional average is “too much.”  Yet this completely disregards the fact the wages across the country have not kept up with the rate of inflation over the past 40 years. The problem isn’t that teacher wages are going up too fast, it’s that the rest of the region should be keeping up with teachers. Furthermore, the author forgets to mention teacher salaries hit a wall during the Great Recession. Many of the recent increases were meant to make up for lost time.

Second, the argument ignores the existence of educational inequity. Across the country, and in San Diego, black and brown and low-income students receive a subpar education. Not coincidentally, they often have the lowest-paid and most inexperienced teachers. Many students learn in burnout factories that turn over new teachers every few years. Teachers are leaving for higher-paid jobs. Yet the argument ignores this fact. If we want to attack the equity gap, it begins with making sure the best teachers are in the room. Studies have shown that a quality teacher is the No. 1 influence in student outcomes. Meanwhile, a survey by Educators 4 Equity found that 67 percent of teachers work a second job. A full 50 percent of teachers have “seriously considered” leaving the profession in the past couple of years, according to a poll by PDK.

This leads to perhaps the largest hole in the piece. It suggests money spent on salaries would better be used to fund “programs” for students. Unfortunately, the author leaves out which programs he means. This is appropriate because there is no program that is more important than a quality, well-paid teacher. In schools, a great teacher is always the best lever in helping a student succeed. They are often the ones in charge of the “cut” programs that the piece alludes to.

We still need to hold school districts accountable for their fiscal management. I don’t believe we can excuse school districts for harmful cuts to programs such as school buses, for example. But I also don’t believe attacking teacher raises is the answer.

The backlash toward teacher raises is coming from many directions. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board wrote last fall that too much of a school’s general fund may be going to teachers. In January, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber wrote a bill to add more oversight over the LCFF process to ensure school’s state monies were going to the right places. There is a growing fear that schools are spending too much of their funds on labor costs and not disadvantaged students. As a teacher on the ground, I can say with certainty that money spent on labor costs is money spent on disadvantaged students.

The No. 1 cost of any school will always be its labor cost, and for good reason. The people in the school building determine its fate more than any computer, textbook, piece of furniture or ambiguous program. Who runs after-school or extension programs? Teachers do. Who keeps a school consistent on a year-to-year basis? Teachers do. Unfortunately, teachers can’t do this if they leave the profession after a few years like I almost did. Unfortunately, teachers can’t do this if they’re forced to work a second job, like I currently do.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Teachers are often carrying hundreds of students aboard their boats, trying to keep them safe, engaged and ready for the world ahead. We need to continue to raise teacher pay, not slow it down.

Andres Perez teaches 11th grade humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista. He is a Teach Plus California policy fellowship alum.

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