Why teachers will never make as much money as lawyers
Last week I was watching TV and heard someone drop the common line, “teachers and lawyers should switch salaries.” I would like to think that most people understand why members of these two professions are paid the way they are, but since there seems to be some confusion out there I’d like to provide clarification on this extremely complex issue.
Just kidding…it’s not complex at all. Basically, salaries are structured as they are because public school teachers are paid with tax dollars, and highly-paid lawyers work in the private sector where they are paid by individuals and companies who are willing to spend lots of money in return for lawyers’ services. In short, the reason teachers are not paid more in the United States is that most people don’t want to pay higher taxes.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009-2010 Back-To-School guide, there were 7.2 million teachers (ranging from preschool to college) in the United States in 2008 and their average salary was $50,800. (This particular document isn’t specific about whether the 7.2 million includes private school teachers, or if the average salary includes college professors, so these numbers may be off by a little bit. But that doesn’t impact that larger point I’m attempting to make.) Some simple math–7.2 million x $50,800–shows us that each year we spent about $366 billion of our tax dollars on teacher salaries (most of this comes from state and local taxes, and not from the federal government).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook for lawyers, the median salary 9 months after graduation for lawyers in private practice is $108,500 and for lawyers in business is $69,100. (For lawyers in government that number drops to $50,000, and for those in clerkships it drops to $48,000.)
So let’s say that we as a society were interested in moving teachers closer to what a lawyer in the private sector would make, and we decided that the average salary for teachers should be increased by 25%, to $63,500. Multiply that by 7.2 million teachers and we would be paying $457 billion per year in teacher salaries, an increase of $91 billion (or approximately the annual cost of the health care reform bill).
I don’t have a strong opinion about teacher salaries being increased. My feeling is, if you’re a teacher and don’t feel you’re getting paid enough, you have the freedom to move to a different profession. I would recommend asking your principal for a raise, but unions don’t allow teachers to do that. As this salary schedule for Chicago Public Schools shows–see page 3 for the 2009-2010 school year–teachers are locked into a salary based on years of experience and level of education. Collective bargaining prevents individuals from making a case to their superiors for higher pay.
That said, if teachers, citizens, or politicians engage in hypotheticals about teacher salaries, they should at least be honest about the cost of providing teachers with a meaningful increase. And to raise the average teacher salary to a point where it doesn’t even match the median salary of a business lawyer 9 months after graduation, we would need to pay for the equivalent of a second health care reform bill, every year.
Sorry to burst anyone’s teachers-should-get-a-collective-pay-raise bubble, but the reality is that it’s never going to happen.