In Wisconsin, It Is the Beginning Teacher Who Should Be Outraged

The graduating class from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin should be outraged at the illegal sick-ins and out-sized demonstrations that have disrupted the educational process in Madison, Milwaukee and beyond.  Until pension and health benefit policies stop gobbling taxpayer dollars, their chances of getting a good job with substantial salary increases will be negligible.

In Milwaukee, benefits run 74.2 percent of teacher salaries.  So reports University of Arkansas economist Robert Costrell in a dramatically informative op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal.

The average teacher in Milwaukee gets $56,500 (beginning teachers get much less), but when benefits are included, the total cost to the district runs just over $100,000.

Sadly, very little of that benefit cash finds its way into the pockets of the many young teachers—probably anywhere between a third and half of all teachers—who don’t make a career out of teaching within the Milwaukee school system.  Mostly women, they teach for a few years, then leave the profession to raise a family, or take an out-of-state teaching position (again, often for family reasons), or pursue another occupation—perhaps a career where salaries are not lock-step increments handed out with no regard whatsoever to individual merit.  If any of those events take place in the first few years of teaching, all pension benefits are lost.  My family knows, as my wife taught for five years in two states at low wages—and her benefit package was worth nothing at all.

Young people need high salaries to cover their student loans and the serious costs that come with child rearing.  It makes no sense whatsoever to give them benefits—which they may never see–worth 74 percent of their salary.

But fat pension and health care benefits make perfect sense to union leaders—especially when the union runs the health care insurance plan, as is the case in Milwaukee.  The more costly the health insurance, the larger the flow of dollars into union accounts, and the fatter the pay check union organizers collect.

It is the long-term teachers who become the union stalwarts.  As they remain on the payroll decade after decade, their pension benefits skyrocket, their health care insurance becomes more valuable, and they come closer to that day when they will secure the attractive retiree health care benefits that await those who stick it out until they reach a certain age.  Those are the teachers who have every reason to desert their classrooms, lie about being sick, and shout and carry on in state capitals.

All this might just be marginally acceptable if very experienced teachers were routinely better than those with just a few years of teaching.  But no one has found good evidence that teachers typically become significantly more effective in the classroom beyond the fifth year of teaching.  My own study suggests an actual decline in average effectiveness after ten years.

Can that 74.2 percent figure be for real?  Yes, it can.  Costrell says that about 22.6 percent goes for social security and pensions (the school system pays the employees share of social security costs!!), 38.8 percent for health care for active employees, 36.4 percent for retiree health benefits (on top of those pensions), and a grab bag of smaller benefits tops it up.

– Paul E. Peterson

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