There are some public sector jobs — vocations, callings really — that people go into because they feel a strong urge to help others and to make society better for themselves and future generations.
Police officers, fire and EMS personnel and teachers quickly come to mind. Police officers whose mission is to “protect and serve” their communities. Firefighters and EMS personnel who run toward danger, not from it, as we saw on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center in New York City. Teachers who instruct our children and help mold the citizens of tomorrow.
No one who feels called to these professions answers the call of public service with the expectation of getting rich. They do it because what they do is important to them and to the communities they serve.
While they may not expect to get rich and amass the wealth of a Jeff Bezos or a Warren Buffett, they do hope to be able to provide their own families with a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle … the hope of everyone who dreams the American Dream.
But recent data from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., paints a grim picture for one group of public servants: school teachers. What the EPI report reveals should concern every policymaker across the country, but especially here in Virginia.
The EPI study sought to examine how public school teachers across the country had fared, salary-wise, in the decade since the financial markets meltdown in September 2008 and the Great Recession. What the researchers found was shocking, but not totally surprising.
The bottom-line conclusion is this: Teachers earn between 0.2 percent and 32.6 percent less than other comparable college-educated workers. The state where teachers at least managed to tread water? Wyoming. The state where teachers saw their take-home pay drop by almost a third? Arizona.
Now you’re probably wondering where Virginia stands in the rankings. The commonwealth, we all know, is the home of the nation’s first public, non-sectarian college — the University of Virginia — and some of America’s top-ranked public high schools are in Northern Virginia. So you might be thinking the Old Dominion has been pretty good to its teachers, considering how much we tout our support of education.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Ranking just above Arizona as the state where teachers have fared the worst is Washington State, where pay has lagged 31.6 percent. Just above Washington State is Virginia, where teacher pay has plunged 31.3 percent, relative to other college-educated people in the workforce.
But as the study found, the Great Recession and states’ subsequent budget cuts can’t — and don’t — fully explain how states such as Virginia allowed the ranks of teachers (and other public-sector professions) to take such deep hit. The biggest reasons for the disparity are policy decisions the states made that purposefully reduced the amount of tax revenue taken in, with schools, fire and law enforcement taking the hits.
In the 2019 session, the General Assembly passed a 5 percent hike in teacher pay — spread over two years, with the requirement that already-strapped local governments match state dollars. Perhaps, though, it’s time for the commonwealth go big in tackling this problem. In 1982, then-Gov. Chuck Robb pushed through the General Assembly an eye-popping $1 billion, 30 percent pay hike for teachers, spread over three years with a required local match. And that was when a billion dollars was real money!
If we in the commonwealth truly value education as the foundation for a strong nation, a robust economy and a vibrant future, this is the sort of proposal that our leaders would be touting and that the public would be clamoring for. So our question to Virginia is simply this: Do we value public education and public school teachers, or are we just paying lip service to the institution?