This map comes from a recent article--based on Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 wage estimates--about teacher salaries. It appeared in Mother Jones magazine, which would hardly qualify as a right-wing or anti-government organ, yet the perception it creates contributes to a favorite argument of the political right: that public sector employees make too much money.
Unlike us free-range bloggers, journalists have deadlines and are expected to create content regularly and abundantly, so I can excuse them for not cross-referencing with other databases or considering the entire context. However, a little bit of context does show that the "average" salaries here, while technically correct, are misleading.
Being a state capital with a larger than typical percentage of well-educated parents, Olympia may support education more than some districts: we regularly approve tax levies on ourselves to fund schools, PTA fund raisers bring in even more, and local businesses donate in kind and in cash. But as in most areas, public school teachers are not well off unless they were that way before coming to the job.
Probably the biggest factor inflating the apparent earnings of teachers is that our teachers are aging. Many Baby Boomers joined the teaching ranks, and are nearing retirement, skewing the mean salary toward the top of the scale. The BLS data show a range from $58,660 for elementary teacher to $60,920 for high school during 2011, but during 2010-2011 school year, Olympia School District's official Salary Schedule (here) lists an overall range of $34,038 to $64,174.
In other words, the individual earning the seemingly lucrative "average" high school teacher salary must have 15 years of experience, a Masters degree, and an additional 45 hours of college credit. (In contrast to the private sector, these requirements are ironclad; there is no extra bonus or salary bump based on merit.) One more year, and this person maxes out (experience beyond 16 years has not monetary value), unless they surpass 90 more credit hours, after which they can never make any more short of a cost of living raise, a rare creature in the public sector. A glance at the 2011-2013 salaries, in fact, shows that the top salary has dropped from $64,174 to $62,995, a nearly 2% cut.
Thanks to many good public school teachers and accessible data (thanks, "big" government), I've found it easy to demonstrate that the mean pay for teachers in Olympia is skewed, and to infer that it will decline as younger teachers replace the veterans who have been delaying retirement during the Great Recession. Unfortunately, too many people ignore what they learned in middle school, and have knee-jerk reactions against whatever scapegoats are handy. Being public servants, unprotected by proprietary secrecy and private sector obfuscation, their union's protection offset by the fact that unions are in the crosshairs of the well-funded right wing, teachers are apt to be chosen. Even Democrats, like the Mayor of Chicago just this week, are prone to treating fair pay for teachers as unreasonable. Yes, a median income of $49,106 is not bad, but considering that it takes a decade of experience and a graduate degree to get there, it's not all that high either.
Backing up and looking at this on a societal level, why begrudge teachers good pay? They are the incubators of our future success. If the most experienced and educated among them earns a tiny fraction of an experienced CEO (or VP, or even Project Manager) in a for-profit business that may not even contribute to the public good, why complain about teachers making so much, instead of about how little we regard the future of our society? If the teachers' union agreed to strict rules on how a teacher may earn higher pay, and signed on to pay cuts during hard times, why is it demonized?
People forget that "average" is neither median nor mode, and that the pay for a typical teacher is likely to take a nosedive as the veterans retire and new blood enters the system, not to mention the pay cuts, increases in employee contributions to benefits, and various other means that politicians use to erode the compensation we provide to those who ready our children for the future. Media outlets less committed to data and accuracy than Mother Jones are even more prone to misleading us. Reagan's mythological "welfare queen" has been replaced by the public employee pensioner living high on the hog.
Excuse me, but I cannot let pass skewed stories that reinforce a corrosive and mean mythology.