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Education Reporter

Government Teacher Pay
Does it make a case for privatization?

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CHICAGO, IL - Every August, local newscasts around the country are peppered with reports of striking public school teachers. TV cameras zoom in on picket lines, and sound bites usually reveal that the strikes are about pay and benefits. In August 1998, high school teachers at a suburban West Chicago district walked out for precisely those reasons, despite the fact that they were already earning more than 92% of all Illinois workers.

According to the Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation (ITEF), most of the state's public school teachers (especially in suburban Chicago districts) earn more in nine months of employment than most Americans do in a year. The average government teacher earned $43,707 for nine months' work in 1998, while the personal income for the average American laboring 11-12 months was $24,225 (1996 figures). The average teacher at the two highest paying Chicago-area high schools grossed an average of $77,763 and $75,032 respectively in 1998, which doesn't include additional benefits in pensions, medical and life insurance, tenure, and tuition reimbursement for continuing personal education.

In contrast, the salaries of private school teachers are set by the free market. As the ITEF's Feb. 1999 newsletter, ITEF Review, notes: "Private schools compete against the subsidized public school behemoth as well as other private schools. They must focus on delivering results at affordable costs or go out of business."

They cite as an example the Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which enrolls 131,000 students and pays its teachers slightly more than half the salaries of their public school counterparts. The newsletter states that "despite the lower salaries, there are usually many applicants for every available private school teaching position," and adds that private schools usually provide better education. "Contrary to popular opinion, private schools accept nearly every student who applies because they need the money."

Across the country, teacher unions routinely spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions to ensure that union-friendly legislators are elected to pass laws that support their political agenda and are favorable to their members. ITEF Review maintains that public school teacher salaries are based on politics, while private school teachers are compensated for their ability to teach. "Illinois public school teachers are rewarded for seniority," it states, "or for taking courses for which the tuition is usually paid by the taxpayers."

Lost in the campaign-contribution controversy and wage-comparison clamor is the issue of whether higher-paid teachers benefit students. The results of last year's Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed a continuing decline in performance among U.S. students in math and science (see Education Reporter, April 1998). Recently, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) issued a statement that 1998 NAEP reading test results for 4th, 8th and 12th graders showed some improvement, but added: "Unfortunately, there still are not nearly enough students who are reading well enough to handle a challenging curriculum or meet the nation's needs as we enter the 21st century."

Results like these have contributed to the rising tide of parents who are assuming the financial burden of sending their children to private schools or home-schooling. Approximately 17% of Illinois students, for example, attend private schools, and the number is increasing. "These consumers," says the ITEF, "are the free-market proof that private schools provide a better education."

Many parents and concerned citizens believe that the only way to "fix" America's education system is to privatize it completely. Private scholarship programs have opened the door for thousands of low-income students to attend private schools, and the concept of tuition tax credits for all families with children in private schools is increasingly finding favor. A recent court decision in Arizona (see Education Reporter, March 1999) that allowed the state's tuition tax credit program to stand has further fueled the movement.

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