MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Teachers in Arizona staged a walk-in today. They didn't leave their jobs but protested in front of schools. They're asking lawmakers for a big raise in pay and also in school funding. This is happening as teachers across Oklahoma continue their walkout and after teachers in West Virginia got the raise they wanted by striking for more than a week. In the next few minutes, we're going to take a bird's eye view of this national fight over teacher pay and ask, how did we get here? Here's NPR's Cory Turner.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: When you put that question to people who study teacher pay, you'll often hear something like this.
SYLVIA ALLEGRETTO: I have been saying, you know, why aren't they out in the streets? What took them so long?
TURNER: Sylvia Allegretto is a labor economist at UC Berkeley. She's compared teachers' weekly wages to workers with similar levels of education. And she says teachers consistently earn less, especially in states that have seen protests.
ALLEGRETTO: These are really huge pay gaps, and over a career, that means these workers are out tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars.
TURNER: On the other side of the country, Bruce Baker teaches education finance at Rutgers.
BRUCE BAKER: What's really so striking to me is that it's had to get this bad.
TURNER: How bad is this bad? According to one study, more than half of states were still spending less overall per student in 2015 than they were before the Great Recession. When you look just at teacher salaries, data published by the Department of Education show that after adjusting for inflation, U.S. teachers earned less last year on average than they did back in 1990. Now, for those of you who can't remember 1990, this was one of the year's top songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U CAN'T TOUCH THIS")
MC HAMMER: (Rapping) You can't touch this. Yo, sound the bell, school's in, sucker. You can't touch this.
TURNER: Clearly MC Hammer was not talking about teacher salaries. Now, not everyone who studies teacher pay sees a compensation crisis.
ANDREW BIGGS: I don't believe they're undercompensated at all.
TURNER: That's Andrew Biggs at the American Enterprise Institute. He says all this talk of teachers being undercompensated ignores many of the other benefits they get, like summers off and the biggest one of all.
BIGGS: The reality is that teacher pensions are a lot more expensive, and they're also a lot more generous than people think they are.
TURNER: But Chad Aldeman, the editor of teacherpensions.org, says not so much.
CHAD ALDEMAN: There's this idea of this gold-plated pension system out there. But that's not the case for the vast majority of teachers who enter the profession.
TURNER: That's because to get any pension at all, teachers often have to stay in the profession and in the same place for five or even 10 years.
ALDEMAN: About half of all new teachers won't stick around long enough to qualify for any pension at all.
TURNER: And those that do really depend on that pension because more than a million teachers live in states where they don't get Social Security. And there's one more problem, Alderman says. Most of the money states spend on teacher pensions is used to pay down unfunded pension obligations - in short, old debts. And some states are now using these debts to justify not giving teachers a pay raise. Again, Andrew Biggs of AEI...
BIGGS: Total education spending is clearly rising. What is stagnating is spending on school classrooms, you know, for teachers, for class materials, things like that.
TURNER: And Bruce Baker at Rutgers says years of spending cuts have contributed to teacher shortages in many places. Now, he says, state lawmakers need to ask themselves...
BAKER: Who do we want to get to go into teaching, and how much are we going to complain about it if we don't get the people we want?
TURNER: It's going to be harder and harder, Baker says, for some states to tell their new college graduates we value teachers when the numbers tell a different story. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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