Greg Forster, Ph.D. | September 18, 2018

Teachers don’t live by bread alone

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Public school teachers are paid more than other teachers and have better benefits and job protection. Yet private school teachers report higher job satisfaction on a variety of metrics. There’s an important lesson in that, both for how we run public schools and how advocates of school choice understand the nature of the reform they advocate.

We find the same gap in Oklahoma as is typical nationally. The state Department of Education reports that in 2016-17, the average high school teacher made $39,319 and the average elementary school teacher made $37,851. That's before the $6,100 (average) pay raise Oklahoma public school teachers got in 2018.

In the same year, according to the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission, the average private school teacher salary across all grades was $36,947.

While we don’t have state-specific data to compare benefits packages, nationally we know public school teachers get better benefits. And public school teachers have some pretty impressive job security protections, which are basically unknown in the private school sector.

The gap is unsurprising. Public school teachers are unionized for precisely this purpose. Consider that the one non-unionized sector of government-employed teachers, charter schools, has salaries very close to those of private schools—$36,536 across all grade levels.

Yet we also know that private school teachers are more satisfied with their jobs. We again don’t have state-specific data. But in a 2009 study of national data from the U.S. Department of Education, I found private school teachers were much more likely than public school teachers to agree that they planned to remain teaching as long as they could (62% v. 44%). They were less likely to agree that they only planned to teach until retirement (12% v. 33%), that they would leave teaching immediately if a job with a higher salary were available (12% v. 20%), that teaching “isn’t really worth it” because of the stress and disappointments (6% v. 13%) and that they sometimes feel like teaching is a waste of time (9% v. 17%). In fact, private school teachers were slightly more likely to be satisfied with their salaries (51% v. 46%) even though their salaries are lower.

What explains this gap? Working conditions seem to matter more to teachers than pay and other material benefits. Even before Common Core, private school teachers were much more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53% v. 32%); content, topics, and skills to be taught (60% v. 36%); performance standards for students (40% v. 18%); curriculum (47% v. 22%); and discipline policy (25% v. 13%). Private school teachers were much less likely to report that student misbehavior (21% v. 37%) or tardiness and class cutting (17% v. 33%) disrupt their classes, and four times less likely to say student violence is a problem on at least a monthly basis (12% v. 48%). Only one in twenty private school teachers had been physically threatened by a student, compared to one in five public school teachers (5% v. 18%). Private school teachers were a third as likely as public school teachers to have been physically attacked by a student (3% v. 9%). One in 50 private school teachers reported that physical conflicts among students occur every day, compared to one in eight public school teachers (2% v. 12%).

There’s a lesson in this for how we improve education. Unionization has raised teacher salaries, benefits, and job protections. But, in schools as in factories, unionization seriously hinders organic cooperation in the workplace, not only between the line workers and their supervisors but also between the line workers themselves. Workplaces begin to run much more by arbitrary rules than by what gets the job done. I remember being in a state legislative committee hearing once where a principal was asked why she quit running a district school to run a charter school. “Because I can hold a meeting” was her reply—union rules had prevented her from asking teachers to attend meetings when needed in her district school.

However, there’s also a lesson for school choice. The choice movement has historically invested far too much in the rhetoric of markets, competition, and material incentives. People are not money-maximizing robots. They care about getting their job done for the sake of the job, not just for the sake of the paycheck or to grow the size of their organization. School choice works because it sets parents, and teachers, free to focus on working together to get the job of education done in the way that works best for them. Yes, incentives matter, and we can say so. But let’s put the emphasis on cooperation, community, and freedom.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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