Monday, February 4, 2008

Why Good Teachers Can Disagree About the Direct $2500 Pay Raise

Teachers are for the most part hardworking, caring people who want to serve their students while still providing for their families. However, they are nowhere near the monolithic, reflexive voting block the UEA haters decry. They unite against obvious attacks on public education like vouchers, but otherwise represent diverse philosophies and stages in life. This is no different than any profession. For example, podiatrists, plastic surgeons, and general practice physicians face similar challenges with schooling, high insurance rates, and balancing costs, but don’t all agree on every law, regulation, and medical practice. They have different opinions and interests depending on their area of specialization, place they live, family background, time in the profession, religion, and individual personalities. And that is a good thing. Different points-of-view are important to healthy democracy and debate. In Alpine District, the teachers reflect the population and are generally conservative Republicans, but each teacher’s individual circumstances and stage of life differ.

In the papers and at the legislator Q&A session I attended at Cherry Hills Elementary in Orem, the legislators have been trying to use those differences as wedges to fracture the occasional unity of teachers against their pet proposals like vouchers or merit pay. Last year, the legislature allocated a $2500 dollar raise and a one-time $1000 bonus for all teachers. That money really helped my family and I appreciated it. They put the money directly into salary, bypassing the normal process of increasing the amount of the WPU which is allocated per-student to the districts which then negotiate salary and benefits with the local unions. The UEA opposed this top-down measure.

The traditional route would end up in a percentage increase across the board for all salaries. A 7% WPU increase would likely end up as a 5% or 6% increase in salaries, not counting benefits. So a salary of $30,000 with a 5% raise would increase $2100, while a salary of $55,000 would increase $3850. Instead, the $2500 increase this year represented an 8% increase in my base salary and only a 4% increase for my colleague who has been teaching for 25 years.

At the Cherry Hills meeting, the legislators explained their support of the direct raises with claims that the money they allocated to salary “wasn’t getting to the end of the row” and that the districts couldn’t account for the money they gave them. These claims were misleading at best—see my previous post about admin. costs and audit results. They also explained to us how the UEA officials were opposed to the direct raises because they were all senior teachers and wanted the money for themselves. (There was no mention of senior leadership pressure on new legislators causing them to break explicit campaign promises or face all of their bills getting tabled. i.e. Rep. Sandstrom) The constant UEA bashing I detailed in my notes on the meeting shows the true game of the legislators. They are angry that the UEA organization provided the framework for the referendum signature gathering and raised funds to oppose the voucher bill. If teachers can be pitted against each other or the union, it dilutes the power of their opposition on important education bills. They’re getting something right for the wrong reasons.

We had some interesting discussions about the issue at lunch when we heard a similar proposal was in the works for this year, and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing the ramifications of the new raises with my aforementioned colleague. Seeing some of the issues from his point-of-view has helped me understand the complexity of all these issues and how compensation is inextricably tied to the healthcare system.

Being a teacher on the bottom half of the totem pole, I obviously really liked the direct raise on a purely personal level. It allowed us to put more money into my IRA and make some needed home improvements. The decision can also be justified for the profession in terms of attracting and retaining quality teachers. A teacher doesn’t go into the profession with the same mentality as someone going into business, but they do require some stability and the ability to provide for their family’s future. We’d be in deep trouble if teaching were only feasible for second earners in two-earner families as some have suggested. So I figure the $2500 increase is still an increase for the older teachers who are more financially stable, and that it will help the new teachers who need it most.

The “greedy” senior teachers have legitimate concerns about their pay when some circumstances are considered.

First, expenses of all sorts increase along with salary as your family grows and grows up. College alone has spawned an entire financial industry dedicated to paying for higher education and those expenses have increased at a rate triple or quadruple the rate of inflation. Teachers deserve the ability to plan for their children’s education. Undeniable point granted.

Second, people are living longer and retirement costs, especially healthcare, are increasing. My colleague gave me a copy of his first salary schedule in the Alpine district from 1983-84. A teacher with 30 years of experience and a Master’s degree made just under $25,000 a year. Since retirement money is based on years worked and previous salary, a teacher who retired after that year would receive a pension of about $15,000 a year. This obviously seemed at least reasonable at the time. If they had been prudent and had their house paid off, they could probably have gotten along just fine. But what if that person were still alive today, 25 years later? People commonly live into their 80’s and beyond now. Property taxes and normal living expenses don’t end. Living without insurance isn’t a reasonable option and an independent policy can be upwards of $10,000. What if they need to live in a nursing home? What if that stay is for a period of years? What if they require major surgery or medical devices such as wheel chairs? The healthcare crisis looms over anyone considering the years after retirement.

My colleague’s elderly mother receives care at a facility that costs $5000 a month. Her roommate and her husband are facing the necessity of using their house as collateral for Medicaid coverage so that the wife can continue receiving care at the nursing home. They’ll literally have nothing when they die. My colleague deals with his mother’s care weekly and often talks with that other couple, keeping his possible future financial needs fresh in his mind. What seems like a secure retirement now could look just as meager in 25 years as that $15,000 seems now. Teachers nearing retirement have a natural and understandable interest in maximizing their earnings now as every dollar translates into more security in retirement.

An argument can be made criticizing these teachers for overdependence on government retirement (though it would be awfully hypocritical coming from legislators…). I think this would be legitimate criticism of my generation, but you have to see where the teachers near retirement age are coming from. The stock market was widely viewed as speculative, risky, and beyond the abilities of individual investors as recently as the 1980’s. The retirement wisdom and mentality of the older generation counted on a stable pension to get through their retirement years as a matter of course. We can prepare the teachers my age to invest individually, but we can’t pull the rug out cold turkey from under thousands of teachers for following what was regarded as the prudent retirement path. Those teachers, along with everyone else of that age, just didn’t have the same resources we do now. Without the internet, investment information and competitive investment options weren’t easily accessible to a common worker. You couldn’t just pop into Vanguard online, check yields, see fund descriptions, and open up an IRA through an online funds transfer. The paradigm has changed now, but there’s still a steep learning curve to investment and savings as we can see in the financial news every day.

In addition, teachers retiring now and receiving pensions weren’t getting those higher salaries, and thus saving, for long. They made significantly less money as beginning teachers than I do. I was surprised to find out how many current teachers’ families qualified previously for free or reduced school lunches, sometimes for over a third of the teacher’s career. There wasn’t spare money to save and they missed out on a lot of years of compound interest.

Now, having said all that, I still think the current direct raises are a good thing. The new teacher shortage and huge initial investment needed to get a house are probably even more pressing than post-retirement benefits and the smaller raise still helps all teachers. Though, as my friend says, I’ll definitely have a different perspective in 20 years as I face my own medical problems and my family grows up needing more clothes, orthodontics, car insurance, etc. We can disagree without assigning selfish motives to each other.

The real solution lies in increased pay across the board to help secure both new and old teachers. Legislative motives don’t look good when they resort to untrue statements of cost and blame to justify the direct raises. The money IS flowing to teachers; it just hasn’t been that much historically. Trying to pit teachers against each other and delegitimize the unions as partners in education through bypassing traditional negotiations smacks of an ax to grind rather than true concern for teachers.


Cameron said...

Great discussion on this topic. I appreciate the "insiders view" you offer here. Thanks.

Barbara said...

Great post. If our elected officials could explain their position on issues with as much "statesmanship" as you have on this one, most voters wouldn't fear the 45 days session as much. I'd nominate you for a position on the Merit Pay task force, if I had any say.

Barbara said...

I'd love to read your view on HB88 if you have the time to share.

UtahTeacher said...

The bill, HB0088, appears to be a nice experiment. Getting more attention to both struggling students and high achievers who need a little extra is a great goal, and this looks like it would at least help. It's voluntary for the districts and teachers, and different districts can try different models. If results are good, they can go back and try to get further funding. Seems like a great idea and great implementation.