Union Report: Great New Essay Tells the Truth About Teacher Pay. Unfortunately, in Ed World, the Truth Is Just Another Story

HBO via RottenTomatoes.com

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears Wednesdays; see the full archive

In 2016, HBO ran a limited series titled The Night Of. It was the story of a college student accused of murder. The student informs his lawyer that he wants to tell the truth of what happened, but the lawyer says he doesn’t want to be “stuck with the truth.” He explains how the trial will go:

“They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best.”

That line of dialogue has stuck with me for years because it seems to be an accurate description not just of the criminal justice system but of most public policy. Of course, there is objective truth, but it doesn’t matter quite as much as the story we like best.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in an extensive essay in the fall 2019 issue of National Affairs. Written by Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine, it is titled “The Truth About Teacher Pay.” The authors masterfully rebut almost everything we have been led to believe about public school compensation, staffing and working conditions. They tear down virtually every graven image the education establishment has put on display for the past 50 years.

Biggs and Richwine are especially effective in dissecting the annual reports on the “teacher pay gap” published by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute. They demonstrate that when EPI’s methodology is applied to other professions, it shows “pay gaps” for about 40 percent of all occupations. EPI’s methods suggest telemarketers are woefully underpaid.

Biggs and Richwine don’t stop there. It’s amazing what an examination of the data tells us:

Teachers leaving the profession in droves? Nope.

Former teachers earning more when they switch to new professions? Nope.

Widespread teacher shortages? Nope.

Teachers work more hours than private-sector professionals? Nope.

Teaching is more stressful than most other occupations? Nope.

Teachers routinely working second and third jobs to make ends meet? Nope.

Teacher salaries (inflation-adjusted) lower today than in the past? Nope.

I’ll add one paradox to this list. Teachers unions are at the forefront of those telling us that educators are underpaid and disrespected, working under incredible stress and unsatisfactory conditions. Yet teachers unions take in more than $2 billion a year from members for the sole purpose of ensuring that this doesn’t happen. If a defense attorney complained that every one of his clients gets thrown in jail, you might consider it an indictment of the legal system, but wouldn’t you at least question the attorney’s effectiveness?

Having lavished praise on Biggs’s and Richwine’s work, I’m afraid I now have to deliver the bad news: It won’t make the least bit of difference.

It’s no use being “stuck with the truth” about teacher pay. The people on the jury — the media, public and other assorted interested parties — have already decided which story they like best. It’s not the one Biggs and Richwine tell.

The truth always matters. But public education policy isn’t the day of reckoning before the pearly gates. It’s a contest of competing stories. If you’re on the losing side, you need to come up with a better story.

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