I was looking around the web the other day and ran across this story on the political blog, The Monkey Cage. It’s an analysis by a University of Wisconsin political science professor, Kathrine Cramer Walsh, about what is going on in Wisconsin politically. Dr. Walsh happens to be in the middle of field research in Wisconsin about regional differences in public opinion. Her analysis focused on the conflict between rural and small town Wisconsinites from northern parts of the state and the more urbanized Wisconsinites from Madison and Milwaukee. One quote from her interviews around the state stuck with me. One of her northern subjects expressed his resentment of public employees, and teachers in particular, this way…
“Sam: I think a school teacher -- I know it can be hard. But they got great benefits. Tremendous benefits. And if you've been there for 15, 20 years, you're making 50 grand a year. There's nobody in town other than them making 50 grand a year. The guys in the [local] mill makes 20 thousand.”
Dr. Walsh’s intent was to present the dimensions of conflict driving the political scene in Wisconsin for the governor’s supporters. She was not seeking to engage their views or do anything other than present solidly objective political science. But I’d like to address the politics (as opposed to the political science) of her subject’s views.
He seems to think that someone making $50,000 after 15 or 20 years in a career is unusually and unfairly privileged. From the other comments in Walsh’s report, Sam and his neighbors have the view that they pay taxes on their small salaries to pay for high salaries and benefits that are not justified. They love seeing Walker stick it to those lazy public employees. This observation by Walsh seems very intuitive to me. It certainly seems to be my experience of how small town Midwesterners think of urban Midwesterners. But how does $50,000 really stack up to a teacher’s private sector peers?
According to teacherportal.com, teachers in Wisconsin start at about $25,000/year. The average teacher in Wisconsin makes about $46,000/year (close to the $50k figure referenced by “Sam”). But according to “Payscale.com”, the average starting salary for a graduate of the largest public university in the state, the University of Wisconsin – Madison is $47,900/year and the “mid career” salary is $87,400. The same numbers for graduates of UW-Oshkosh (a smaller, less prestigious branch campus of the UW system) are $38,900 and $67,800. Since all teachers have to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, deciding to become a teacher upon graduating from college means making a massive sacrifice in pay. The gap is probably biggest for math and science teachers. Taken as a group overall, teachers make about half as much as their private sector counter parts throughout their careers. I know that teachers often get good health care and retirement benefits. But there is no benefits package I can imagine a teacher getting that's worth $40,000 a year.
What’s more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average salary in 2008 of a male with a high school diploma was $32,000 (women average $25,000). So it is possible that a new high school teacher could congratulate her graduating students and watch them earn more than she does with nowhere near the same investment in education and training. If anyone should be resentful, it's the teachers.
This source also points out that the real value of the salaries of high school grads has dropped quite a lot in the last 30 years. No doubt, this perception of declining living standards drives the resentment that people like “Sam” feel towards teachers and other public employees. But I argue that Sam’s resentment is horribly misplaced. Over the same period, college graduates’ salaries have more or less flat lined (even including the private sector). If Sam and his neighbors want to find out where their share of the national economic pie went, teachers are not the place to look. They should look at Wall Street. But the Republican party has successfully convinced Sam and his friends that their real enemies are the people are managing to tread water while Wall Street pushes Sam and his friends under water.