Popular attitudes towards public education suffer from an ignorance of some basic principles of education, such as the law of supply and demand.
Recently a friend of mine said something along these lines: “Isn’t it disgusting that the cast of ‘Jersey Shore’ gets paid $45,000 per episode when teachers in this country don’t get paid that much for a whole year?”
What I know about “Jersey Shore” is very little. I suspect (I have not bothered to do a Google search) that it is a “reality show” on some TV network, about people who spend their time baking in the sun at a beach on the Atlantic Ocean.
As you might surmise, I don’t see any need to watch that show. But millions of people, or at least hundreds of thousands, find the show compelling, entertaining, or otherwise worth their time. That fact means that advertisers hand over money to the producers of the show, who in turn pay the “actors” of the show. That’s no “God’s-eye-view” judgment that “Jersey Shore” is more important to the health of the health of the country than education, but it does illustrate the economic principle of scarcity: That which is scarce, relative to the demand, fetches more than that which is not.
Nationally, the “average” teacher earned about $54,000 per year, which isn’t wealthy, but not exactly a starvation wage, either. (I suspect, though don’t know with certainty, that this number does not include health or retirement benefits.) The number in Kansas is lower ($49,000), but then again, Kansas has a lower cost of living than, say, the east-coast urbanized zone from Washington, DC to Boston, or the sprawling settlement that is Southern California. There’s another factor about teacher pay that must be kept in mind, too: Teaching offers job security that is not present in many jobs. Getting fired for non-performance almost never happens, thanks to the power of tenure and contracts. Even getting let go for economic reasons is not as likely as in some other industries (witness the recent, massive “edujobs” bailout from Congress.)
Finally, the pay of teachers has been affected by the trend towards “smaller class sizes.” Simply put, you can have few teachers earning a lot, or more teachers not earning as much. The path the nation has taken in recent decades is to increase the number of teachers. As any student of Econ 101 can (if he’s paying attention) tell you, when the supply of people supply a service goes up, that puts downward pressure on wages.