What $54,000 really means for a teacher

Is $54,000 per year too much or too little for a grade-school teacher in Grayslake? In a recent letter a husband said his wife’s $54,000 salary with two degrees and 10 years’ experience was “far below private industry salaries.” I disagree.

First of all, let’s not confuse a master’s degree in education with a master’s degree in nuclear physics. As everyone knows, advanced degrees in education are designed of, by and for the teachers for only one purpose – higher salaries.

In the parallel universe that is our public school system, salaries are based on pseudo education credits, not on performance. Three recent examples include visiting a feed grain dealer, visiting a dairy farm and, my own personal favorite, going to Arlington Park racetrack to study probability theory. Each of these two-day so-called courses was worth two credits and result in pay increases for the teachers. Imagine putting “visited dairy farm” on your resume and expecting a higher salary because of it.

Let’s assume that Mr. Husband would agree that a 40 percent increase, to $75,000 a year, would put his wife at or near “private industry salaries.” That would put her $300-a-day teacher salary just slightly lower than her $312-a-day private industry salary because in the real world people work 12 months or 240 days a year not nine months or 180 days a year.

So what would she give up for $12 a day? Well, her current 10-minute round-trip commute easily could turn into three hours a day if her new $75,000 job took her out of Lake County. That means she would be gone at least 11 hours a day as opposed to the six hours a day called for in her current teachers contract. That’s three bucks an hour. And what about the summers off and the two weeks at Christmas – is that worth $12 a day?

Of course, in the private sector, Mrs. Teacher could be fired at any time – no tenure in the real world we non-teachers work in. What is a lifetime guaranteed job worth? Maybe 30,000 degreed former Motorola employees could answer that question.

And while Mrs. Teacher has been averaging more than 6 percent annual increases recently, the rest of us have been averaging less than 3 percent. Mrs. Teacher should plan on fewer and smaller increases.

Finally, the $4 billion taxpayers contributed to the Teachers Retirement System last year equals $21,000 per teacher, about four times what the average private-sector company contributes for that same $54,000 salary. That means taxpayers are paying Mrs. Teachers’ $54,000 salary and $21,000 pension contribution at the rate of $416 a day vs. $341 a day for the $75,000 salary and $8,000 pension contribution in the private sector. Making $75,000 in the private sector would mean a cut in pay for Mrs. Teacher.

So if Mr. Husbands’ wife is willing to sit in rush-hour traffic, give up her summers with the family, take a cut in daily compensation, allow her employer to fire her at will and accept Social Security as her main source of retirement funds, then I suggest she take the first $75,000 job she can find.

Bill Zettler is a free-lance writer and consultant specializing in public sector compensation.