Op - Ed
May 31, 2017

Teacher animosity tied to taxpayer anxiety

By Jon Margolis, VTDigger

We have seen the enemy: teachers.

They are bankrupting the state. They make too much money. Their benefits are too generous. They have too much political power.

So, at least, one might think from some of the speechifying and commentating that accompanied the recent (and to be continued) flap over where and how the health care plans of school employees should be determined. In the corridors of the Statehouse, in letters to the editor, and on social media, scores of Vermonters vented their anger at the teachers and their union.

Most Vermonters? Not likely.

Polls show that teachers are just about the most esteemed folks in the country, and there’s little reason to think Vermont is an outlier.

But bitterness toward teachers may not be that rare, either, and for good reason. Some of those complaints about them are valid.

Public school teachers make more money than most Vermonters. According to the most recent estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Vermont’s annual mean wage last year was $47,620. For teachers it was between $56,670 and $58,070.

That’s for nine months a year, and it comes with a low premium/high benefit health care plan and an old-fashioned pension. No wonder some folks think teachers have it too good. From the perspective of a guy making, say, $45,000 a year lifting heavy objects, with only two weeks vacation, a sparsely-funded 401(k), a skimpy health care plan (or none), and no union to protect his interests, teachers can seem like a pampered elite.

Doctors, lawyers, software engineers and hedge fund managers earn more than teachers. But they aren’t paid directly by the taxpayers. Teachers are. At least in theory, every time teachers get a pay raise, taxes can go up for people who earn less than they do.

So do teachers make too much money?

No, and in today’s political context it’s notable that among those who think not is Gov. Phil Scott, whose proposal to make teacher health care negotiations statewide inspired the current anti-teacher comments. Asked at a recent press conference whether he thought teachers “too generously compensated,” the governor quickly and quietly replied, “no.”

Teachers are college graduates. Many have advanced degrees. There appear to be no data showing exactly how much more a college degree is worth in Vermont. But nationwide the college degree premium is large and growing, easily enough to make up the difference between teachers’ pay and everybody else’s. Even factoring in the three months off, teachers earn less than most of their college classmates who went into business or another profession.

As to those benefit packages, it isn’t that teachers’ health insurance and pension plans have gotten so much better as that many others have gotten worse. The employer-imposed move from pension plans to 401(k)s might be the largest redistribution of wealth upward in the history of the world. Workers who grumble about how much better teachers have it might consider redirecting their resentment toward the companies that eviscerated benefits rather than the workers and their unions that protected them.

The teachers union, the Vermont NEA, is active and influential. It mostly supports Democrats, who therefore pay it heed, just as Republicans pay heed to the realtors, grocers and home builders associations supporting them.

But the recent claim by the Republican State Committee that Democrats in the Legislature are “bought and paid for by the Vermont NEA” need not be taken seriously. It is a combination of standard political exaggeration and the temptation of partisans to believe that their opponents can’t honestly disagree with them, and so must be controlled by some malign force.

In the same way, liberals often assume that Mountain State Republicans in Congress who favor more logging and mining on public lands must be “bought and paid for” by the logging and mining companies.

They are not. They happen to favor more natural resource production on public lands. Anti-union critics complain that the NEA’s professional staff helps it outfox school board members during negotiations. If so, the union’s negotiators aren’t that foxy. Vermont teachers earn less than their counterparts in the neighboring states.

Like the realtors and home builders associations and the chambers of commerce, the NEA and other unions are best treated with respect but not deference. Respect because they are all bona fide members of the community, lack of deference because their job is to protect and enhance the economic well-being of their members, which is not always the well-being of everybody.

Vermont spends a lot of money on schools. If it spends too much, it is because there are too many school employees, not because they make too much money.

By the usual measurements of school quality (graduation rates, test scores) what the state gets in return for that money is good schools, which do enhance the well-being of everybody. Perhaps the best way to make those schools worse is to go to war against teachers. The remedy here is not to give them everything they want. But demonizing them is the first step toward mediocrity.

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