State lawmakers will return to Montgomery on Tuesday, February 4th and education will be one of the primary issues they will be taking on.
Lawmakers expect an increase in both the Education and General Fund budgets for the coming year, and that means more resources available to address the issues facing our public schools.
One of the biggest issues facing education in Alabama today is the teacher shortage, which has been caused both by people leaving the profession and because of people choosing other career paths instead of becoming teachers.
At the heart of both of these causes is teacher (and retiree) pay.
To be sure, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to leave teaching or to pick a different career path. There’s a growing frustration among educators with the lack discipline in our schools, the overemphasis on teaching for test scores instead of teaching to actually educate students, and a general lack of resources combined with overcrowding in our classrooms.
And I certainly don’t believe that you can solve problems simply by “throwing money at them”, nor do I believe that people choose to become educators for the money. But you do have to invest in solutions to problems, and no matter how motivated a person may be no one can afford to work for free. Teachers have bills to pay, too.
According to an analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, teachers are paid almost 20 percent less than other similar professions. In Alabama, the wage gap is closer to 30 percent. And while teachers do typically have better benefit packages, those benefits still do not make up for the pay gap.
In fact, the study found that “there are no states where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates.”
So for a college student who is trying to choose between a career as, say, an accountant or sales manager versus a career in education would obviously have more motivation to choose one of those other careers.
At the same time, it isn’t just what we pay our current educators. Our retirees have also been left behind, and while current educators have received a few small races in recent years (raises that have largely been negated by increases in their health insurance costs), retirees haven’t received anything.
Unlike the private sector where our retirement plans are usually 401(k) investment portfolios that ideally grow as the economy grows, educators’ retirement is essentially a pension plan where your benefits may not increase as the cost of living increases.
This means that we have many retired educators who have to spend more just to survive as the cost of living goes up while their pay has remained flat.
Is it any wonder, then, why nearly 50 percent of new educators quit within the first five years and why so many college students are choosing other careers?
Certainly money alone won’t solve all of our problems. Paying teachers more won’t fix the discipline issues in our schools or correct this silly obsession with test scores that so many state leaders can’t seem to see past.
But paying teachers (and retirees) more money will improve educators’ moral, help recruit and retain more educators in our schools, and attract more of our best and brightest students to the teaching profession.
Our lawmakers certainly have their work cut out for them this year. They will face many complicated issues and so far there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on many solutions. But one thing lawmakers should all be able to get behind is giving our current and retired educators the true pay raise they deserve.
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. And when it comes to our children’s education, we shouldn’t be skimping.
Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.