What is a teacher worth?
AFN file photo

You know those “national conversations” we have all the time, about the big issues: guns, sexual harassment of women and the latest episode of “The Bachelor”? It’s time for Arizona to have a “state conversation.” The subject?

What is a teacher worth?

That question rarely gets asked, though lately we’ve heard a lot about teacher’s paltry salaries and the #RedForEd movement. To my mind, the question of what a professional is worth and what a job pays are actually two different questions. In Arizona, for example, the average elementary school teacher is paid about $42,800 a year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the worth of that teacher, the value to our community created by an excellent, committed professional who successfully educates 25 students for 180 days a year? While I couldn’t put an exact number on it, I’d say $42,800 is too little by at least half. Especially when I think about the best elementary school teacher I had back in the day, and about those teachers’ impact on the rest of my life.

The same goes for high school teachers. Returning to the BLS stats for a moment, the average Arizona high school teacher earns $48,020 a year. In the 90th percentile, our best-paid high school teachers pull down about $67,600 annually. But what are they worth? When I think about the best high school teachers I spent years with – Mr. Hundley, who taught biology and physiology, and Mr. Capezza, who taught the history of America and Europe – again, I’d be tempted to say they should’ve earned double. Maybe triple. But certainly more. Much more.

Especially when I read about how we use state tax dollars to pay some other employees. Like the two highest-paid employees in Arizona last year, Todd Graham, who drew $3.1 million to coach Arizona State’s football team. And got fired. And Rich Rodriguez, who earned $2,375,000 to coach the University of Arizona football team. And got fired.

You may be tempted to say, “Well, you’re comparing apples to oranges, Leibowitz, that’s what the market will bear for a football coach,” blah, blah, blah. Save that for our state conversation, because that’s exactly the right place for such points. And for me to say in return, “I was scrolling through state salary data this week – yeah, I do need more hobbies – and I saw a bunch of nursing professors earning $200,000 a year. I’m not saying that’s some scandal, but it did make me want to compare the relative value of producing emergency room nurses versus producing, say, well-adjusted, on-the-right-path-in-life teenagers.”

If we had more of the latter, I’d argue, we’d need fewer of the former.

My fear for the #RedForEd movement isn’t that it will peter out or fail, but that it won’t succeed enough. To me, if we’re talking about giving teachers a salary bump of three percent versus five percent, we’ve already conceded that teachers are worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year on average. Maybe that’s simply the wrong neighborhood, ill-kempt streets of rundown apartments and beater cars, sketchy blocks where police sirens screech all night and no sane person who could afford better would ever choose to live.

Maybe as a state we should discuss putting our money where our hearts and values are. Maybe when you hand your children over to a professional to fill their brains with knowledge and shape their future, you should treat that teacher with the respect they deserve. Maybe for once – no, definitely for once – we should talk about that.

– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact david@leibowitzsolo.com.

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