Don't Raise Teacher Pay (To Be Nice)
The stories are everywhere.
Ms. Lovesmore buying school supplies for her elementary classroom, trying to offset those cruel state budget cuts. Mr. Marderman working three part-time jobs to supplement his pitiful teacher pay. The tears. The caring. And the children – Oh! The Children!
And I get it. Lots of teachers are rather devoted folks. Many of them do make sacrifices to help their kids, or simply to stay in the profession. I’m not trivializing the commitment.
But these mini-Passion Plays feed the wrong narrative about public educators and funding – particularly teacher pay. We might as well have Sally Struthers stand weeping in front of a naked math instructor, sadly scooping gruel from a bowl while flies buzz around his distended belly.
We’re not looking for handouts. It’s unbecoming to play on sympathy, especially when we’re not the only profession getting shortchanged at the moment. Besides, pity or warm toasties are horrible reasons to raise teacher pay or increase school funding. They’re emotionally driven, unreliable, and fundamentally inaccurate.
Public schools aren’t businesses, nor should they be. You’ll hear that a lot in the upcoming voucher battles, and it’s entirely true. But neither are we charities, or churches, or some type of third world profession. We’re not taking up “love offerings” while Sarah McLachlan plays in the background.
Teacher pay needs to go up substantially, and soon – but not for me. It needs to go up for you. And your kids. And your pocketbook. And your state.
A decent public education system is an essential function of civilization. We’re a fundamental part of the social contract that allows people to live together in relative peace, to specialize, to become more productive, and to progress artistically, culturally, medically, financially, and lots of other –allys.
Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short. It’s perpetual anarchy. All that “freedom” the far right keeps fetishizing to justify their horrible leadership? Yeah, you have that in a state of nature. The only trick is that you have to defend it all by yourself with your big rock in one hand and your pointy stick in the other.
Go to sleep and you might wake up with nothing. Encounter someone stronger or faster than you and you could die. There will be no Netflix binging or iPhone12 – not even an Applebee’s. Just you and your dead squirrel trying to stay hidden until the rustling in the distance fades away.
At some point this gets old. You somehow manage to coordinate with a half-dozen other free souls to work out an agreement – two of you will stay awake and stand guard, one of you will cook, another will explore. Maybe you bring in someone not so handy with pointy sticks but pretty good at making more comfortable shoes – that’s someone worth feeding. Later you find a pretty girl who can sing kinda nice, so you feed and protect her because... art.
No one joins out of pity for the guy making shoes or guilt over the girl who can sing. They join because they like comfortable shoes and good music and not getting killed by someone else’s pointy stick.
That’s called the “social contract.” My contributions may help you – and that’s great. It’s why you let me in. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because what benefits each of us benefits all of us; and what benefits all of us benefits ME.
For the social contract to function, each person involved has to give up some of their individual freedom – some stand guard during long nights even when they’re tired, others cook for larger groups than is convenient. They may quarrel over who gets to sit next to the singing girl, but more often than not they’ll eventually decide they’d rather keep sharing that squirrel stew and sleeping in the warm cave – so they work out a compromise.
Stuff like that is why you agree on a few written laws and protections to improve – not hinder – your growth, happiness, and well-being. They allow you to keep growing, and diversifying, and prospering, and being of mutual use to one another.
Which, ironically, is where it gets tricky.
Eventually it gets difficult to remember exactly WHY you were giving up so much of your own convenience, or contributing so many of your gifts and resources to the whole when it seems like you ask so little in return. The social contract has been so successful that we forget how eager we were to share that squirrel if it meant sleeping securely – how many extra shoes we'd contribute if it meant more people learned to sing like that.
Most of us understand why we want a fire department, even if we’ve never had to call them. We might not have supported that bond issue to re-imagine our downtown, but we at least see all the restaurants and clubs and shopping that sprang up a year later.
But why should YOU support a teacher raise? Why should YOU demand better support for public education in general? What do YOU get out of this part of the social contract?
I humbly offer a few possibilities…
Do it so you’ll have better teachers. Yes, it’s a “calling” – but so are many careers, and Economics 101 tells us that better pay means more people pursuing it. That means competition for positions (something we currently have the opposite of), better hires, higher expectations, and better results. In turn, that raises the culture of the profession, which leads to more people pursuing it, etc.
Do it so we’ll have fewer folks on public assistance or in jail. This one will take a few years, but the numbers are solid – stronger public education system means less of that other stuff. In turn that means lower taxes for you (or at least taxes spent on better things). Teach a man to fish…
Do it for the economy. Students who are challenged and encouraged by good teachers in a variety of subjects and surrounded by a diverse group of peers are better equipped to function in an increasingly complicated world. They make better businessmen, better entrepreneurs, better employees, better communicators, and better consumers.
Do it so the people around you will be less annoying. No school system can promise you 100% witty, thoughtful, and warm graduates, but it can sure shift the balance. A well-managed and legitimately supported public school system means more informed voters and conversationalists, more creative and self-driven colleagues and employees, and fewer people messing up your order at Taco Bueno.
Do it because all those kids have to be SOMEWHERE during the day. You can embrace vouchers, push charters and private and virtual and homeschooling all you like, but hundreds of thousands of teens and pre-teens are still going to end up in public schools, or nowhere at all. We can try to educate them, form work camps and use them as labor, lock them up, mass execute them, or leave them to their own devices all day every day and hope for the best. What would you choose?
Do it because we’ll take the colorful kids, the disabled kids, the kids who don’t speak English, the kids who have weird emotional issues, and the kids who come with twelve-page federally mandated Individual Education Plans. Those “undesirable” types you’re desperately trying to get your kids away from (see ‘vouchers’ above) won’t magically vanish just because we start subsidizing Hunter’s year at Science-Free Academy for the Straight and Prosperous. You want someone to take responsibility for your cast-offs and shape most of them into productive, hopefully-not-deeply-bitter humans? Pay up.
Do it so you can complain more without sounding like a complete jerk. Browbeating educators in Oklahoma is popular sport currently, but you’re automatically an a-hole for doing it (whether elected or not). It’s like throwing shade at South American missionaries for not eliminating the heat and flies. You're welcome to grouse, but... seriously? Pay teachers a meaningful wage and you can write more belittling editorials and pass more counterproductive laws AND get away with it.
Do it so other states have one less thing to mock us about. Oklahoma somehow manage to make Arkansas look politically sophisticated and Texas seem passionately committed to the well-being and enlightenment of all children. TEXAS! Voters repeatedly elect Islamophobic conspiracy theorists, gun-fetishists, and legislators who say things like “if we’ll legislate the morality, God will take care of the economy.” It’s rather glaringly obvious to anyone paying attention why we don’t want our kids to be better educated – they’d start to notice this kind of nonsense and be horrified by it. Start acting like you value public education and maybe we can all turn against New Mexico together or something.
Do it because of what it says about us as a people. That we value the right things, and that our ideologies can withstand an at-least-partially-educated populace. That we have vision, and some understanding how civilization works – or doesn’t. That it’s the “American” ideal – the foundation of democracy. And if providing that support, and investing in that ideal, also makes you look like “good” people, well… bonus.
But don’t do it out of guilt, or pity. Don’t do it because you feel bad for me. Do it because you’re selfish and demanding, and expect more of your community. Because you know it can work better. Do it so you’ll come out ahead in the social contract.