Are Teachers Really Overpaid?

    How many people consider entering the teaching profession due to the high pay? Sure, it is plausible to think that summer vacations are a big incentive, but other than teachers with wealthy spouses, how many drive Mercedes? If you did find such a teacher has she inherited some money or invested every dime of her paycheck into her car, instead of her house or family? Maybe her Mercedes is used and held together by duct tape. Certainly, on a teacher's salary, driving a luxury car is not feasible. Yet, a Rhode Island citizen reading his or her local paper might think differently.

    The Providence Journal regularly prints editorials about overpaid teachers. Teachers have become one of the main scapegoats for higher property taxes, because the majority of a town's revenue is dedicated to the costs of maintaining its schools. In addition, the majority of a public school's budget is allocated to staffing. Although, this is true across the country, Rhode Island teachers are not overpaid. Instead, RI has one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. and wages for most other professions have been declining or have stagnated since the 1970's. In comparison, teacher salaries look higher.

Cost of Living Factor

    Providence-Warwick-Fall River is now one of the highest cost regions in the nation. In fact, "[i]n 2003, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight reported that Rhode Island had the fastest appreciation in housing prices in the country." ( Source: The Poverty Institute OR Home Ownership: The Impossible Dream (Projo article)) If the price of one's mortgage or rent increases at the "fastest" rate in our nation, it is only obvious that our salaries would also need to increase proportionally. The problem here is that our media only report that teacher salaries in RI are some of the highest in the nation. Consider the following:

    The Wall Street Journal's career search database ( ranked RI secondary teachers as the eighth highest paid in the nation. Rhode Island also has the 7th highest paid accountants and the 4th highest paid veterinarians. ( See RIPR report) When you factor in our high cost of living, things become clearer. For example, the National Center for Policy Analysis ranked 50 major U.S. cities' teacher salaries adjusting for cost of living and Providence came in 37th place (high school) and 40th (elementary). [ click here for the tables]

    Rhode Island teacher salaries have kept better pace with inflation than have many other states. The American Federation of Teachers reported that "[t]he average teacher salary in 2003-04 was $46,597, an increase of 2.2 percent from 2002-03. The national rate of inflation in 2004 was 2.7 percent." In other words, on average, teacher salaries across the nation are losing ground to inflation; therefore RI teachers tend to rank high even though salaries are not "exorbitant" as usually reported. ( See AFT report)

Depressed/Stagnant Wages

    "[F]rom 1973 to 1997, average incomes for the bottom 99 percent of Americans declined or were flat." The richest one percent have done well, though. ( Perfectly Legal pg. 25 - See chart for visual explanation) Wages have stagnated, but our level of productivity has grown. In other words, we are working hard and producing much, but our wages are not proportionally rising with our level of productivity. Therefore, businesses are gaining more for less at the worker's expense. For example, "Between 1947 and 1973, a golden age of growth for both variables, productivity and real median family income more than doubled..." On the other hand, "[f]rom 1973 to 2003, median family income grew by less than one-third the rate of productivity." ( The State of Working America 2004/2005 by Economic Policy Institute) In addition, "[f]rom 2000-2004, Rhode Island was the only state in New England that experienced no significant increase in the real median wage despite its relatively strong economy." ( State of Working Rhode Island, pg. 16) In other words, while our economy and corporate profits move out of the recent recession, RI workers' wages are remaining stagnant.

    Why? About a third of our workforce in the United States was unionized in 1945 ( Source), but membership has declined dramatically to a low 12.5% (BLS). In 2003, union worker wages averaged $23.25 compared to $17.66 for non-unionized workers. "Unionized workers are 28.2% more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance." ( Source, pg. 190-2) In Rhode Island, we lost 39,000 manufacturing jobs (about 1/3 of this industry) between 1990 and 2004. These displaced workers have entered our service sector (Wal*Mart, Burger King) that pays significantly less and is largely un-unionized. "The average wage for the top twenty occupations [in RI] was $12.26 in 2002 - just barely sufficient to cover the basic needs of a single parent with two children receiving public subsidies for health and child care." ( Source) Yet, union bashing is common in our corporate-dominated media. *Globalization, among other causes, also contributes to this problem. 

An Example Why You Can't Trust All You Read: Providence Journal Editorial

         Last Spring, the Providence Journal reported that our state of RI was number one in teacher compensation in the country (“ We’re Number1”). This editorial was preceded by numerous attacks on the wages of teachers and the performance of our schools. What was not mentioned was that our per-pupil expenditure, overall, fell much lower (10th place – and RI has one of the highest cost of living in our country…think of escalating housing costs here).

To reach its conclusion, the Journal had taken the percentage or ratio of our teacher compensation to the overall per pupil expenditures. If you actually read the Census report (as I did) you would find that states like NJ and NY far exceed our state’s expenditures for teacher compensation and per-pupil expenditures as a whole. It’s easy to distort statistics. For example, if RI paid $1000 per pupil per year and paid $900 of that for teacher compensation, then it would read as 90% goes to teachers. But, if NY paid $10,000 per pupil and $5,000 went to teacher compensation, then NY pays only 50%. So, RI is much higher in percentage to teacher pay. The Journal only printed the percentages. I would argue that this is unscholarly and ethically wrong, unfortunately this is common.

Author: Ted Mitchell    Edited by Cynthia Ballard

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