Editor's Note: Teachers Must Feel Like Targets in a Shooting Gallery

Jun 1, 2011




Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

They are overcompensated and underworked.

They siphon undeserved cash from state budgets, shortchanging essential needs such as human services or the health and safety of our citizens.

They are to blame for America’s difficulty in maintaining its superior economic position among the world’s nations.

They mostly fail in their primary job responsibility.

They are unable to cope effectively with the pressures brought on by normal societal changes.

They surely are the root of many — if not most — of the problems America will face in the future.

Who are they? Why, teachers, of course. And we need to do everything we can to chop off that root, so the problem doesn’t continue to grow in coming years.

I have to say that I don’t believe any of the above. But I may be in the minority. In Illinois and across America, teachers have become the scapegoat for a host of problems.

Many believe that America’s declining educational achievement is due to teachers’ inability to teach their students, no matter how unruly their charges; no matter how little support they get from many parents and taxpayers; no matter that parents who do support them often hover over their children like helicopters, questioning every decision teachers make; no matter that the federal government mandates constantly improving standardized test scores, dictating for the most part what teachers should teach if they want to keep their schools out of trouble.

The remedy for that, some state and federal officials say, is to base individual teachers’ pay on the performance of their students on standardized tests. It’s unclear whether those in poverty areas, where students traditionally do worse in school, would be graded differently from those in more affluent neighborhoods, or whether the aberrations that can occur from year to year in small classes would be taken into account.

But, hey, that’s OK because, you know, teachers are overpaid, anyway. They only have to work nine months out of the year and collect a full year’s pay. Well, according to the 2010-2011 Illinois Teacher Salary Study, prepared annually for the Illinois State Board of Education, the statewide median pay for a beginning teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $35,408. It’s $39,045 for a beginning teacher with a master’s. For a teacher with a master’s and 10 years of experience, it’s $48,703. For a teacher with a master’s and maximum experience — which varies widely among schools but appears to fall normally in the 20 to 25 years range — the median is $64,166. Those numbers, of course, also vary by geographic areas: higher in the northeast; lower downstate.

If those figures sound like a lot for nine months’ work, consider that during that period, many teachers — if not most — put in well over 40 hours a week grading papers, chaperoning school events, attending extracurricular activities, preparing lesson plans and continuing their own education, along with teaching a full load of classes, one after another. Teachers who average, say, 50 hours a week — a not unrealistic figure, many teachers say, that includes an extra hour or so a day plus a weekend morning or evening — work essentially a full year during those nine months. If that still seems like too much pay, then subtract the 9.4 percent that teachers outside Chicago must contribute to their pensions and look at it again. Chicago teachers contribute 2 percent, and Chicago Public Schools pays 7 percent. 

Yes, Illinois teachers don’t contribute to Social Security; they can’t by law. But, then again, they don’t receive any Social Security payments when they retire; only those pensions.

Ah, pensions. They are the scapegoat’s poster child, to mix a couple of metaphorical clichés that would make my former English teachers wince. Many believe that pensions for teachers and other public employees are the reason why so many state governments are reeling financially. And they have become the target of governors and legislators from New York to Wisconsin to California. Oh, and Illinois, as well.

It’s unclear as of this writing what is likely to emerge from the Illinois General Assembly as the latest round of so-called pension reforms. But the stated goal is to reduce or eliminate state government’s responsibility for future pensions — and most likely cut the pension benefits themselves — for current teachers and state employees. Of course, benefits for teachers and others hired after January 1 of this year were reduced — in comparison with those hired before then — through legislation passed last year. 

There’s no question that the state Teachers’ Retirement System has a large unfunded liability. That is due primarily to lawmakers and governors reducing or skipping the state’s required annual contributions to the system numerous times over the past couple of decades, while individual teachers continued to kick in 9.4 percent of their salaries every year. Now, many lawmakers say teacher pensions are too generous — that they aren’t in line with retirement benefits offered by private businesses.

According to the state Teachers’ Retirement System, the average annual TRS retirement benefit for an Illinois teacher is $42,782, not a generous amount when you consider that those who spent their entire careers in classrooms can’t collect Social Security and invested nearly 10 percent of their pay into TRS along the way.

Daunting constitutional questions aside (see Illinois Issues, April 2011, page 3), if these so-called reforms are enacted and withstand court challenges, it would be just another bullet point on the list of reasons why current teachers and those considering entering the profession must feel like targets in a shooting gallery — and must be seriously reconsidering why they chose the path they did.

Are there abuses in school pay and pensions? Certainly, though most occur among administrators, not rank-and-file classroom teachers. Are there some bad teachers? We all know there are, and other legislation in which teacher unions had a voice (see page 9) attempts to address those concerns.

But it’s state lawmakers and other elected officials, not teachers, who failed to make the required pension payments; who didn’t adequately fund public schools, thereby creating conditions that often hinder rather than help students’ learning; who signed off on the pensions in the first place.

And it’s parents and voters who don’t provide support at home for teachers in the classroom; who repeatedly reject tax referendums to improve local school conditions and then complain that Johnny and Jill are falling behind.

Elected officials, parents and voters who view teachers as the main cause of the shortcomings in public schools need instead to turn their gaze toward the nearest shiny surface.

Illinois Issues, June 2011