Kamala 'Oprah' Harris and How Much to Pay Teachers

It's now 955 days until Election Day 2020, and it looks right now like it's going to be a litany of daily offers of New Free Stuff by the Democrat candidates for president. Of course, at last count there were 1,123 Democrat candidates for the presidency, so that's a lot of Free Stuff in the race to see who can turn America into Venezuela the fastest.

That said, Kamala Harris's recent assay into the Oprah-fication of politics was relatively minor, and distinguishes her from some of her colleagues by not being actively crazy. She tweeted yesterday that she wants a federal program to raise teacher salaries, which she says are $13,000 less than other salaries.

When a politician quotes some number, outraged by how low (or high) it is, the Responsible Reader will look at it cynically and skeptically. In this case, the first point is to note that public school teachers in the U.S. are paid on the basis of the school year, not the calendar year.

So, we start by doing a little arithmetic. According to niche.com, U.S. teacher's salaries average $58,950 a year. Call it $60K. Divide that by 9 and we get $6,666.67 per month; multiply that by 12 to get $80,000 a year.

But then I don't think Harris's comparison is exactly right either since most other employees in the U.S. are paid on an annual basis. And it's interesting to note that the difference between the hypothetical full-year salary and the average 9-month salary is about $20,000, while the difference Harris imputes is only $13,000. Comparing 12-month to 12-month, it appears that teachers are coming out a little bit to the good, and are not being treated unfairly. And yes, I hear the screaming teachers out there, I know this isn't a completely fair comparison. And in any case, $60K is not exactly a princely wage, and I'm all for paying teachers more.

Harris's solution is, as always, a federal program.

Federal programs should be considered guilty until proven innocent; we should look first at what this program would do if applied stupidly since that seems almost certainly the way it would be done. (I'm tempted to say "applied as stupidly as possible" but governments are so ingeniously stupid that I don't want to make it a dare.)

So, the stupid way: give each teacher an average $13,000 raise, bringing their 9-month pay to an average $73,000. That's with a 3-month vacation.

As I say, I'm philosophically okay with paying teachers more, but if we're going to do it, let's think about some conditions.

First of all, raise the salaries so they do average $80k a year, but make schools run a full-year schedule. Summer vacations are a relic of the days when the kids had to help out with the plantin' and harvestin'. With the majority of families now having two working parents, all it does is make child care an even bigger problem in the summertime.

Second, before we do federal money, let's look for money in other places. It turns out that in schools now, at least in big-city school districts, there is one or more "non-teaching professional" for every school teacher. For that, read "administrators." In fact, most of the growth in expenditures in the last 20 years has been in adding non-teaching professionals; somehow, schools got along with a lot fewer administrators in the past.

We could find a lot more money for teaching salaries if we fired non-teaching professionals down to, say, 1980 levels and used their salaries to raise teacher salaries. Remember that administrators are in general paid more than teachers: one administrator fired should be enough for a big raise for four or five actual teachers.

Third, if we're going to have a federal program to raise salaries, the money should go to raise salaries!

No "administrative costs." No pay raises for non-teaching professionals — if they're non-teaching, they should not be getting raises meant for teachers. No increments on the extra pay for coaches — sorry, but even in Texas having a winning football team doesn't help kids later in life.

There's a theme here: if we're going to use federal money to raise teachers' salaries, it should be going to teachers.

If history is any guide, it won't: it will go to administrators, more administrators, more administering, more managing. Because that's who benefits from increased funding.