On the cover of this week's Time magazine, there is a story I know about from first-hand experience: how little most teachers are paid. As the teacher on the cover says, "I work 3 jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills." She's not alone, and she's not exaggerating. In lots of cities, teachers (many with Master's degrees) are paid such low wages that they can barely make ends meet. And it's not because these teachers are spendthrifts with expensive tastes-- far from it. Many are not only barely getting by-- they are forced to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, as budget cuts affect some of the most vulnerable in our society... the kids who are trying to get a good education.
While certain politicians boast about our great economy, they're omitting an important fact: wages in many industries have remained flat. And nowhere is that more true than for teachers. Reports from the non-partisan Department of Education show that teachers are one group of workers whose wages have stagnated the most. In fact, when we adjust for inflation, teachers are earning less today than they did in 1990. In some fields, educated professionals are seeing their wages rise. But teachers in all too many cities are seeing theirs decline. Worse yet, per-pupil spending has also declined, leaving all too many students stuck in dilapidated buildings, using old books. (And as I mentioned before, I know for a fact that many teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, or their students will go without.) You can read more about the situation here: http://time.com/magazine/us/5394910/september-24th-2018-vol-192-no-12-u-s/
I am a big fan of a charitable organization called Donors Choose, which allows people to donate money for school supplies and books. I donate often, and I'm happy to do so; I'm glad I can help some hardworking teachers to get materials they need for their classrooms. But I have often wondered why adequately funding our schools, and paying teachers a respectable wage, is something many states have decided is not a priority. In some states, it's political: there are many conservative politicians who oppose teachers' unions and dislike the idea of public schools, and as a result, they have waged a war on public school teachers. But in other states, it's simply the result of wrongheaded decisions that waste money on some areas while depriving others of much-needed funds.
I understand that it has become customary for some folks to criticize public education. I wish they wouldn't. Public schools have long been a part of American life (we have one in Boston that goes back to 1635), and many of us have benefited from attending them. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the public schools, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that. And yes, I know there are some poorly-run schools, and yes I know there are some bad teachers-- but they are NOT the majority. All over the country, devoted and hardworking educators work tirelessly to make a difference for our kids. They are often not just teachers but mentors, counselors, and even mom or dad surrogates. Teachers not only receive inadequate pay, but as a society, we rarely express our appreciation for what they are doing.
Frankly, I think our priorities are somewhat skewed. We will spend money on building a big stadium for the local pro football team; and we will pay a college football coach triple what the average teacher (or professor) makes. But when it comes to education, somehow there's just not enough money; and when it comes to new books or school supplies, some districts provide them, but others don't. And caught in the middle are the kids who want to learn, and the teachers who want to teach them.
This shouldn't be about politics, and it shouldn't be about public schools versus charter schools. While policy-makers debate where the money should go, the first priority should be improving all the schools, and giving all students the opportunity to learn. But in too many places, educating our kids is treated like a burden or an expense. It shouldn't be either; it's an investment in our future as a society. Few teachers get into education expecting to become rich; but a living wage would be nice, as would enough school supplies. I can't think of a more important calling than being a teacher; if only our policy-makers agreed, because if they did, they'd show teachers a lot more respect.