Public Schools Not Underfunded, Teachers Not Underpaid

The single post from way back that I still get the most Google hits from (and the most nasty email, I might add) was my post on the myth that public schools teachers are underpaid.  This was a follow-on post to my lengthy post fisking the NEA's school improvement plans and here too.  The premise in all these posts was that 1) Public schools actually spent more per pupil than private schools that do a better job and 2) Teachers, when you adjust their total hours to match other workers who don't get summers off, make a salary very competitive to other professionals, even before their hefty government benefits package.

The Goldwater Institute has just completed a study of Arizona private schools, and has come to many of the same conclusions.  The study's author, Andrew Coulson, summarizes the findings:

In a study released yesterday
by the Goldwater Institute, I analyze the results of their most recent
private school survey. Among the other fascinating findings is that
public schools spend one-and-a-half times as much per pupil as do
private schools. Or, looked at the other way, private schools spend a
third less than public schools.

Some other fascinating tidbits:

Teachers make up 72 percent of on-site staff in Arizona's independent education sector, but less than half
of on-site staff in the public sector. In order to match the
independent sector's emphasis on teachers over non-teaching staff,
Arizona public schools would have to hire roughly 25,000 more teachers
and dismiss 21,210 non-teaching employees.

When teachers' 9-month salaries are annualized to make them
comparable to the 12-month salaries of most other fields, Arizona
independent school teachers earned the equivalent of $36,456 in 2004 "”
about $2,000 less than reporters and correspondents. The
12-month-equivalent salary of the state's public school teachers was
around $60,000, which is more than nuclear technicians,
epidemiologists, detectives, and broadcast news analysts. It's also
about 50 percent more than reporters or private school teachers earn.

My kids go to an absolutely fabulous private school here in Phoenix.  It is secular and (gasp) actually runs for-profit, so it has no endowments or sources of grants or charitable funds.  In exchange for a great education that far outstrips the quality of even the best local schools, it charges a tuition substantially less than the Phoenix-area per-pupil public school spending (and it offers a 20% discount for each child over one).  If you are considering a move to the area, email me and I will give you more detail.

More here on the virtues of school choice.  This is a sort of related post on the barriers to starting a private school.


  1. Matt:

    "If you are considering a move to the area, email me and I will give you more detail."

    Be sure to warn people about the fact that if they try to wire money from their old out-of-state banks to pay for the house they buy, the state of Arizona will steal it from them.

  2. Joe:

    I gave the report a quick look with a couple of questions in mind.
    1. When they compared success did they control for parent income?
    2. What % of private school students qualify for free meals? ESL?
    3. What % of non-classroom school employee is devoted to discipline/special needs? Is there a Pareto distribution? in effect where the worst students suck up most of the resources?
    4. What are the expulsion policies/rates?
    5. Are the criteria being compared homogeneous? In other words do all public schools have the same distribution of classroom/non-classroom staff?
    6. What do these non-classroom staff do? Are they simply administrative overhead or do they have other functions?

    I didn't read the report closely yet, but the answers didn't leap out at me.

    I do agree with you that teachers aren't underpaid. At least not in the 'good' districts. I've had many friends that spent years looking for a teaching job in a nice suburb. The fact that they'll do the job means they're getting paid enough.

  3. Rob:

    On a side note, I've heard an idea about improving public gov't schools by introducing competition between them.

    Every family recieves a school credit for each kid (maybe a tax refund for no kids, wishful thinking). The parents decide which school to send their kids to. The school teaching the kid will receive the credits (in effect that credit will be translated into gov't money).

    Of course school sizes are limited, and the "better" schools will attract the most attention.
    We don't need a gov't program to go rate schools either. Parents and students can be well
    informed on their own. I remember in High School that you could easily list other schools in
    the city and talk about their reputation.

    Schools themselves will want to attract more students (ie. their credit which is $$$ to them).
    This would hopefully cause a competition for attracting students, which would require the schools to be better, or possibly they would even specialize. Some schools might advertise a stronger emphasis on foreign language, math, or arts, while others maybe be vocational or general education.

    In the short term, I'd like to see a solution to the problem of rewarding more money to bad schools and less money to good schools. In the free market, this might make sense because you want to invest into fixing problems areas; however, in the gov't market, there is no true incentive to improve, so you end up with problem schools "enjoying" their problem status so that they will gain more funding.

  4. Xmas:

    In defense of teachers being underpaid, you also need to figure in their work hours. An average public school teacher's workday, I'd wager, is 10 or more hours. They have to get in an hour before classes start (let's say 6 AM), stay through the whole schoolday (3 PM), stay after class to help students or to monitor extra-curricular activities (5 PM), then go home and grade schoolwork and prepare for the next day's classes (7 PM).

    During the summer many public school teachers are required to take classes to keep their certification. They pay for these classes out of their own pocket. They also may be attending seminars and preparing for next years lessons.

    So, the 9 months versus 12 months comparison just doesn't fly. Even if a teacher is just putting in 10 hours per schoolday, a 180-day school year is 1800 hours of work, versus 2000 hours of work for a normal full-time job.

    From an economists stand-point, public school teachers cost more because of the extra value of their ability to handle working in a public school system.

    And let's not forget that a large portion of public school children are diagnosed as learning disabled:

  5. Joe:

    The idea that the modern professional work week is 40 hours is a silly. Seminar's and continuing education are either required or strongly recommended in many fields. Teaching is somewhat unique in that advanced degrees guarantee you a raise. Where i work it guarantees you a nice certificate of achievement and an attaboy at the next staff meeting.

    As for using market forces to drive school improvements...
    The situation you describe combines is a competitive monopoly with a fixed price. I don't think that this would lead to a lot of improvements.

  6. beeper:

    Our public school parking lots are empty at 7:00am and empty again by 4pm.

    10 hour days? right.

  7. student_loan:

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  8. cpurick:

    Perhaps the most interesting fallacy about teachers' salaries is the notion that we could pay these teachers more.

    Without even getting into the question of whether we're already getting into our money's worth out of teachers (either way, the answer does not bode well for teacher raises), there's the question of why everyone thinks the same people would be teaching if the job paid more.

    A certain percentage of teachers, for example, are the offspring of teachers, just as a similar percentage of doctors are the offspring of doctors. Raise teacher pay to be equivalant to doctor pay, and within a generation teaching will be performed by a higher percentage of doctors' children who might otherwise have become doctors. At that salary level, the opportunity cost of becoming a teacher (to someone with the luxury of having the choice of being a teacher or a doctor) is lower than it is at current salary levels.

    This does not translate into the children of more teachers becoming doctors, simply because the ability to teach does not imply the ability to be a doctor in the same way that the ability to be a doctor indicates an ability to teach. In other words, the luxury of having the choice between being a teacher and being a doctor belongs to more doctors' children than to the children of teachers.

    Liberals use a recurring argument for the minimum wage: higher wages attract better workers. This implies that "not-so-good" workers will lose jobs in the bargain.

    Apply it to teachers and the same thing happens. Higher teacher pay will result in better teachers. Probably not such a bad value in the long run for those of us who consume education; but also probably not the big pay raise anticipated by those who produce it. For a lot of them, in the long run higher wages will simply mean unemployment.

  9. markm:

    "Our public school parking lots are empty at 7:00am and empty again by 4pm. 10 hour days? right." Good teachers take home a stack of homework to grade, and work a few more hours at home. Good teachers keep up with changes in their field. Good teachers tutor struggling students outside of school hours. I know this for a fact because my father was a good teacher.

    However, in our public schools as they are presently run, there are also bad teachers, and they get the same pay and job security as good teachers. The only reason for a teacher to bother to be a good teacher is pride. Worse, good teachers often leave the field after a few years. They are usually people who could do well in other jobs, and get more pay and respect. Bad teachers may well know that squeaking through education school and getting that certificate was the greatest accomplishment of their lives, and will hang onto their teaching job forever - it's better than McDonald's.

    So just raising the pay will accomplish nothing, except to make the deadwood cling to their secure jobs even more tenaciously. You've got to actually get rid of the bad teachers, either by identifying and firing underperformers (which is impossible in a union job), or by encouraging them to do better or move along by passing them up for raises that go to their better-performing colleagues (which is also close to impossible in a union job).

    Low pay isn't the only issue. Teachers also get little respect. That's because they are NOT professionals who take responsibility for their own progress, but unionized employees.

  10. Rob:

    I agree markm, we need to reward the good teachers to increase competition among them to do well.
    People that are "good" in any field, tend to take pride in their work (one factor to why they perform better), if you don't recognize their good work, it becomes meaningless. In effect, you've taken demeaned the person's pride/respect for their work. Now how do expect people to improve when you are hurting their moral when they do a good job?