Kamala Harris's flawed proposal to help teachers could make problem worse

It’s an idea that apparently was too good to check. In The Washington Post, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE (D-Calif.), a candidate for president, proposed a bold new federal-state partnership to raise teacher pay because of a yawning “teacher wage gap.” Yet, while teacher compensation is a problem in many states and school districts, Harris relied on incomplete data. As a result, her proposal will fail to help the teachers as it should — and might actually make their problem worse.

Harris cited a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that found a growing “pay gap” between teachers and their private-sector peers. This is one of those things that is taken on faith among proper-thinking people in the education world, and prior versions of the same report received uncritical coverage from outlets including The Atlantic, NPR, Vox.com, and The Post.

Unfortunately, the analysis is flawed.

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Others have critiqued the EPI methodology for not fully accounting for the differences between a teacher’s work schedule and other professional jobs. Reasonable people can disagree about the various assumptions, although EPI’s methods do seem to tilt the balance toward their preferred narrative. But after digging deeper into the numbers, I also found that EPI’s methods significantly undercount the true cost of teacher benefits. It’s a simple but significant mistake. A more careful analysis shows that the rapidly rising costs of teacher benefits offsets the oft-cited growth in the teacher wage gap.

The original data are from a Bureau of Labor Statistics database called the Employer Cost of Employee Compensation (ECEC). Beginning in 2004, the ECEC began reporting two different figures for teachers. They reported data for teachers employed by state and local governments — that is, public-school teachers — and for all teachers nationwide, which includes private-school teachers. Prior to 2018, EPI used the numbers for all teachers, even though private-school teachers generally earn lower salaries and less generous benefits than do public-school teachers.

EPI fixed this mistake last year, but their most recent numbers still have a similar problem. When they compare teachers to other professional workers, they use data on all civilian employees, including public-sector workers. But public-sector workers have more generous benefits than their private-sector peers, so EPI is overestimating benefits in their comparison group.

This is no small thing. After fixing this error, I estimate that the teacher benefit advantage would climb from EPI’s reported 7.6 to 11.6 percentage points. What’s more, after accounting for the growth in teacher benefit costs, there has been no meaningful change in overall teacher compensation compared to private-sector workers since at least 2004.

Of course, teachers can’t use their health care or pension plans to pay their mortgage or buy groceries, but total compensation is still the only apples-to-apples way to analyze across sectors — especially because deferred compensation through pensions is such a fundamental aspect of teacher compensation today.

Failing to accurately account for pensions and health care obscures the extent to which these costs are crowding out resources for teacher pay. To give one example from Sen. Harris’s home state, in Los Angeles, where teachers recently went on strike, spending on teacher salaries increased 24 percent over the past decade, whereas health care and pensions increased 138 percent. Overall compensation is rising even if teachers don’t see it in their paychecks or the supports they receive in their classrooms.

So EPI is correct to note that teacher wages are falling relative to inflation — and this is a real problem and why teachers are understandably frustrated. But what’s getting lost in credulous media coverage — and in proposals such as the one put forward by Harris — is the growing disconnect between teacher wages and total teacher compensation, which continued to grow since the EPI report came out last fall and is projected to rise for the foreseeable future.

Harris explicitly referenced total compensation in her announcement, not just wages, but her proposal focused entirely on salaries. That could make this problem of benefits crowding out salaries even worse for states and localities. A federal-state partnership to stop the bleeding is not a bad idea, but that partnership must be more than a giveaway and must also contain measures to get teacher retirement and health care costs on firmer financial footing, improve teacher pay in the places where teachers are underpaid, and more generally overhaul the archaic ways we compensate teachers.

Politically that conversation is hard enough, given the special interest-fueled politics of the education sector. It becomes nearly impossible when fueled by misleading data.

Chad Aldeman is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit education consulting firm, and the editor of Teacherpensions.org. Follow him on Twitter @ChadAldeman.