Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Working Class Hostility Toward Jersey & Philly Teachers

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has been trying cut teacher salaries and benefits (like many other governors) in order to balance his bloated budget. He has been filmed telling teachers to quit if they don’t like their pay. He has derided teachers for getting employer-paid health benefits, and called teachers unions disgraceful.

Which Side Are You On?
There are currently 19 school districts in South Jersey, and another 13 in the suburbs north and west of Philadelphia, that are in contract disputes. While teachers fight to hold onto their salaries and benefits, parents and taxpayers are getting riled into a lynch mob mentality against teachers. While it is understandable and justifiable that people are angry about their own financial insecurity and the gutting of their schools, it is misdirected anger when it is placed on teachers, rather than the rich and corporations who refuse to pay their fair share of taxes, or at the banks and financial institutions that created the recession and then received trillions of taxpayer dollars to be bailed out.

Teachers, like all workers, should be compensated fairly and sufficiently to live comfortably in the communities in which they teach. Everyone should get health care and be able to afford food and housing. Anyone who does not have this level of material security is getting screwed, by the bosses and the rich, not by other workers. Rather than attacking fellow workers and denying their right to a decent and secure life, we need to remember that all workers have far more in common with each other than we do with the bosses.

Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance,
Unless we organize.

Cut Teacher Salaries and Lose The Best Teachers
Interestingly, even executive teacher-basher Barack Obama believes teachers should be paid a decent wage. In the Audacity of Hope he wrote that, “there is no reason why an experienced, highly-qualified teacher shouldn’t earn $100,000,” although he did tie this to a weakening of tenure protections. While Obama would like to give administrators greater authority to fire teachers and weaken teacher authority and independence, he does at least recognize the relationship between adequate remuneration and the ability to recruit and retain the best quality teachers.

Despite the president’s good intentions, teacher pay generally lags well behind comparable jobs, which is one reason why it is so hard to recruit good teachers. The Economic Policy Institute wrote that teacher pay lagged 15% behind similar jobs, and that the gap has been widening. When I left the lab to become a science teacher, I took a 15% pay cut.


  1. I have to disagree about teacher pay lagging. Not all fields have equal market worth. A masters in math or any science is worth more than a masters in history. Some degrees are relevant only in education so there is no comparable private sector salary.

    That teaching should somehow be immune to the downward wage pressure the rest of the area is under is inane. Its a middle class job and should come with middle class benefits and salary. Some of those districts have platinum benefits with upper middle class salaries. That has to change.

    Finally, one good thing that may come out of this is the removal of seniority, a change that is long overdue. Seniority is a factory level approach that is unsuitable to any professional. Its time to get that behind us.

  2. There certainly is a downward wage pressure for the working and middle classes, but not for the wealthy. It is they who are immune. Even so, teachers salaries were lagging behind comps long before this recession began, and have gotten worse in recent years. If teacher salaries were immune, then we should be gaining on other workers as their salaries plummet. Just the opposite is occurring.

    There is no indication that seniority rights are going to disappear soon, and certainly not without a fight. When cuts come down and people have to be let go, there has to be a fair way to decide who goes, ideally one that does the least harm to children. The problem is that there is no fair alternative, nor one that ensures the least harm to kids. There is no accurate method for comparing teachers, though there is considerable evidence that teachers improve with time on the job (especially during the first few years).

    If we base it on test scores, then teachers at schools with high percentages of poor kids will be the first to be let go, a problem that already exists because poor schools tend to have higher percentages of young and inexperienced teachers. This actually harms kids, especially the poor ones who will lose more teachers than kids at middle class schools.

  3. The Billy Bragg tune is a re-working of the original, which was written by Florence Reese in the 1930's in support of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky.

    There's an amazing scene in Barbara Koeppel's classic labor documentary from the '70's, "Harlan County, USA," when an elderly Reese sings it for a later group of striking miners.

  4. Thanks for pointing this out, Michael.

    Harlan Country is a fantastic, must-see film and that scene with Reese is amazing.

  5. Ironically, I also published a post but with the Natalie Merchant version, "Which Side Are You On?".
    Feel free to post or publish on your blog, if you would like.

  6. Thank you for your kind thoughts. I just want to write about my core beliefs and be actively involved.

    If you would like, you can also post this link to your blog as well. I was doing a job search for pre-kindergarten teachers in the NY Metro area last night. 2 jobs from the NYC DOE came up on my search which surprised me. They are newly created job positions and are supposed to work with the incoming Chief Accountability Officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky.

    Here is the link.