CBS Detroit posted a silly but eye-catching article on Wednesday about desperately underpaid public-school teachers. It claims that hundreds of big-city teachers are supplementing their meager incomes by becoming “sugar babies” paid to provide “companionship” for wealthy men. About halfway through the article it becomes obvious that this is not evidence of a real trend, but rather just a factoid from a website that helps match willing sugar babies with willing sugar daddies.
What bothers me about all of this — aside from the fact that CBS is giving press to a seedy dating service — is the enduring myth of the underpaid public-school teacher. Readers are expected to instantly grasp that of course teachers are struggling financially, and that maybe teachers really are taking extreme measures to make ends meet. “When will teachers get the compensation they deserve?” we are supposed to indignantly wonder.
The truth is that the average public-school teacher is not underpaid. Andrew Biggs and I crunched the numbers a couple of years ago and found that the average teacher actually makes considerably more than he or she would earn in the private sector, once health and retirement benefits are included in the comparison.
Let me emphasize that this is a conclusion about the average teacher. Many teachers deserve substantially higher pay than what they currently receive. But the system tends to reward less-effective teachers as much as it does the top performers. This means that the worst-performing teachers have always had generous “sugar daddies”–the taxpayers!
There’s an important lesson for policy here. Across-the-board pay increases for teachers — the constant demand of the NEA and the AFT — will do little to improve teacher quality. The extra money is already there, but teacher skills have not risen to match the pay. What’s needed is a more flexible compensation system designed to reward good performance.