A Teachable Moment

Is a crisis in education less important than a crisis of our capital markets? At the end of 2008, the federal government took aggressive measures to ensure that a supposed complete financial meltdown would be averted by purchasing troubled assets and restoring liquidity to the largest banks in America. Only a few months following the bailout of these banks, many of them paid out healthy bonuses to the same executives responsible for causing the situation to unfold.

Today, in Wisconsin, we watch teachers fight to ensure they receive a five figure salary. According to The Atlantic, the average salary for teachers in Wisconsin is slightly worse than the national average with starting salaries of $32,642 and a maximum with a master’s degree of $60,036. Meanwhile, the average Wall St. bonus, not salary, fell to a measly $128, 530. Goldman Sachs paid $431,000 on average.

Is it fair to compare the salaries of Wall Street executives to the teachers in Wisconsin? Are the jobs on Wall Street more valuable than the ones in education? It seems like an easy answer, with Wall Street profits reaching $27.6 billion last year. But with our job market thinning and unemployment hovering around 9% it seems wise to invest in education to help build the jobs of tomorrow. The financial sector is but one component of our economy, an economy sorely needing diversification based on how apparent it is now that we depended on Wall Street to create capital and jobs for far too long.

Countries like Japan and China are busy making investments in science, infrastructure and education. It’s already been all but conceded that China will soon have a larger economy than the United States in a few short years. What are we doing to compete?

America is locked in a battle over budgets, and many of the calls for streamlining our government are well intentioned. The problem is not that we are trying to cut too much, but we’re focused on cutting the most minor expenses that help the most vulnerable, the largest base of potential workers who make up the unemployed. The largest personal incomes are being protected, tax cuts for the top 2%.

The teachers in Wisconsin are a microcosm of the misguided efforts to make America more fiscally responsible. How can anyone say with a straight face that we need to get these minuscule teacher’s salaries in line when we dump trillions of dollars into failing banks, essentially tossing out the entire element of risk? If you’re too big too fail, what’s stopping you from making the same risky moves and doing it all over again?

How we reward good teachers and weed out the bad ones is a valid debate. Money alone isn’t going to help bring up the quality of education. It’s not, however, a subject for debate when the quality of the teachers isn’t even being considered in taking away their rights to collective bargaining. This isn’t about quality of teachers, this is about taking away their ability to make a living wage. Even with the rights to collectively bargain, they’ll still continue to be underpaid, but that’s all that they’re asking for.

Anyone who thinks being paid $60,000 a year at the high end hasn’t spent much time around teachers, who work around the clock putting together lesson plans, grading papers and creating examinations, at nights and on weekends.

The double standard we hold our teachers to says a great deal about the direction of this country. If we want to stop rewarding others for failure with no consequences for continuing the same behavior, we should first start by looking a bit further up the financial food chain.