There are two different reasons a beginning teacher in this country likely can’t afford to live on their salary. One reason is supremely self-evident: state by state and city by city, teachers are paid less than similarly educated and qualified professionals.

The second reason isn’t quite so obvious, but it underlies the first and it’s quite grim. Teachers are underpaid because as a group, teachers are disrespected and disliked by significant segments of the U.S. population. The underpayment isn’t just “a lack of funds.” It’s deliberate and intended.

Teachers’ Pay Is Going to Get Better…Really!

One of the predictable features of American political life is the initiative — federal or state — to improve teacher salaries and working conditions. You probably remember reading about these plans. Here’s how they’re typically announced:

“State Needs to Fund Teacher Pay Increases” (from The Black Hills Pioneer, published in South Dakota in 2019)

“State Crafts Plan Aimed at Boosting Missouri Teacher Pay and Keeping Them Around” (from Missourinet, published in Missouri in 2019)

“Missouri Mulls $400M Plan to Boost Teacher Pay in Public Schools” (from St. Louis American, also published in 2019)

What’s interesting about these initiatives is that both states rank among the very lowest-paying states in the country. Missouri teacher salaries rank 43rd, South Dakota’s rank 49th.

So, you might think, that’s why they’re boosting salaries — they understand they need to treat their teachers better. Maybe so, but if past is prologue, it’s unlikely. In reality, since 1996, when the Economic Policy Institute began studying teacher salaries, they’ve steadily declined in constant dollars.

The Teacher Pay Penalty

What makes the salary decline remarkable is that teachers have always been paid less than similarly educated and qualified professionals. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the teacher pay penalty.

The Economic Policy Institute study reveals that male teachers earn nearly 25% less than comparable male workers. Female teachers do a little better — they earn about 14% less — but that’s less impressive when you take into account that all female employees earn less than male employees to begin with. The teacher pay penalty is very real. But why?

Because Teachers Deserve a ‘Punch in the Face’

At least according to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, they do. Christie, who was having trouble connecting with Republican voters in his bid for the nomination that eventually went to Donald Trump, made the comment on CNN because, he maintained, the teachers’ union had backed Hillary Clinton but also because the teachers union “doesn’t care about kids.” Christie was always disdainful of teachers and has even maintained that teachers who are members of the American Federation of Teachers “are the single most destructive force in American education.”

One way of explaining such statements is that Republicans often oppose unions and unionization, but why the teachers’ union specifically and why the vehemence? Finally, it’s in the nature of political discourse to find targets that energize the base — and just as “billionaires” and “Wall Street” rally Democrats, so “teachers” has become a well-understood kind of verbal shorthand among Republicans for “people who are against us.”

While these political antagonisms aren’t fully rationale, they aren’t entirely baseless either: the teachers’ union is one of the largest unions in the country and — as numerous conservative publications including Fox News complain — has almost always leaned Democratic. And when you think about it, it’s also threatening that the people who are educating your kids might also be slipping in a little left-wing propaganda with their history lessons. For some Americans, teachers are simply the enemy.

There’s Just Something About You….

The old joke about God’s reason for inflicting painful trials on Job is relevant to American attitudes toward teachers. Articles in both Harvard Business Reviewand Quartz enumerate the ways in which teachers aren’t trusted or approved of. Some of it is political, but a lot of it isn’t.

Many Americans believe and resent that teachers, unlike the rest of us, only work nine months a year and even then don’t even work a full day — widespread beliefs that run almost surrealistically counter to teachers’ actual experience. (It must be noted that teachers haven’t been as effective in countering these beliefs as they need to be.)

But perhaps at the heart of the problem is a strain of American anti-intellectualism as old as the republic and succinctly expressed in the often heard put-down: those that can, do; those that can’t, teach. If someone thinks there’s truth in that, why would they vote to give these people a raise?