The most popular article on Yahoo! News this morning runs under the headline "Should the Starting Salary for a Teacher Be $60,000" and reports:
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed last month that a significant boost in teacher salaries could transform public schools for the better by luring the country's brightest college graduates into the profession.
Teachers should be paid a starting salary of $60,000, Duncan said, with the opportunity to make up to $150,000 a year. That's higher than the salaries of most high school principals, who are generally paid much more than teachers.
The median salary among all middle school teachers, for example, not just those starting out in the profession, is around $52,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lamely for an online news organization, there's no link in the Yahoo! News article to Secretary Duncan's proposal. What I found on the Department of Education Web site was a July 29, 2011, speech by Secretary Duncan that phrased the salary issue as a question: "We must think radically differently. We should also be asking how the teaching profession might change if salaries started at $60,000 and rose to $150,000....Money is never the reason why people enter teaching, but it is the reason why some people do not enter teaching, or leave as they start to think about beginning a family and buying a home. Today, too often the heart-breaking reality is that a good teacher with a decade of classroom experience is hard-pressed to raise a family on a teacher's salary. That must change."
The Yahoo! News article reports, "smaller raises of 20 percent or less have been ineffective, and one New York City school that embraced much higher pay has so far underperformed on state tests." It also says there were certain tradeoffs, like larger class sizes.
My sense of it is that at the college level it's at least possible that we are heading toward a system where the top professors make $300,000 or $1 million a year to "teach" online courses to tens or hundreds of thousands of students. As a taxpayer, I'd happily pay the schoolteachers $200,000 a year if they could succeed in actually producing students proficient in English, math, science, and history. But, as so often with the Obama administration, the arrogance of central planning is on display in the idea that the education secretary in Washington, rather than individual school leaders or local governments, should set teacher pay. The flaw is that if the higher pay doesn't work in improving educational outcomes, the costly error has been imposed nationwide (and good luck at that point with trying to cut teacher pay back to previous levels). Better to allow local experiments. It's not as though the influence of teachers unions on local governments or school boards is so weak that the unions need federal assistance on their side at the contract bargaining table. And never mind the question of where the money will come from, with the federal government creaking under large debt and deficit burdens and with state and local governments straining to meet existing pension and health care obligations, let alone increased pay.
One other important point on teacher pay: It's a really old argument. Here is Richard Nixon 51 years ago, in a September 26, 1960, presidential debate: "we want higher teachers' salaries. We need higher teachers' salaries....I favor higher salaries for teachers....Teachers' salaries very fortunately have gone up fifty percent in the last eight years as against only a thirty-four percent rise for other salaries. This is not enough; it should be more."