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Hug a teacher today

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Hug a teacher today.

Why? Because teachers are probably the best bargain in public employment, although you wouldn't know this if you've been following the unfolding farce in Wisconsin or listening to the drumbeat on Fox news.

The rap against teachers is that they are feeding high on the public trough, with (allegedly) exorbitant salaries and outrageous benefits. And they only work nine months out of the year!

The fable far exceeds the reality, however. In statistics from the state Education Department from 2008, the average salary range for all north country school districts was from $43,000 to $55,000. With a few notable exceptions (Indian River sort of stands out), the schools with higher average salaries were generally those with more long-term teachers, and those with lower averages tended to have younger staffs.

However, since New York requires teachers to obtain masters degrees, the average college schooling of all NNY school teachers averages above five years. So when a young teacher starts out with his or her $30,000-something salary, they are facing repayment for whatever they had to borrow for their $45,000 four-year degree and their $12,000 masters (and that is if they got their degrees through the SUNY system; private and out-of-state degrees can be double that, or more). If they borrowed a third of the cost of their education, their debt, before they draw a paycheck, is around $20,000.

So ask yourself – how many private sector jobs that require masters degrees pay on average less than $50,000? To put it another way, how many people with masters degrees expect, at midcareer, to be making $48,000 to $50,000? If you said damned few, you would be guessing high.

In the Wisconsin state house and on Fox News, the claim is that teachers need to be beaten back in salary and benefits because their averages exceed those of the "common" residents of the states in which they work. Not only is this not necessarily true, when measured against education levels, it is demonstrably false. Other than in the area of health insurance, teachers are well behind the pay for their level of education. And teachers can hardly be blamed for their pension costs, because they are in the state retirement system and their benefits are similar to those of county maintenance men and state Department of Health inspectors and the sprawling public employment spectrum across New York.

If there is one area where teachers may deserve at least some of the whipping they've been getting is in health insurance benefits, where they enjoy the highest benefits at the lowest personal cost, when compared to their private sector counterparts. In the private sector, health insurance has become so expensive that there are virtually no companies who have not responded by lowering benefits and increasing worker costs. In the public schools, teachers' unions have fought hammer and tong to limit worker costs of health care, in many cases avoiding entirely employee contributions to policy costs and keeping co-pays far lower than the private sector. And frankly, this has hurt public perceptions of teachers.

Teachers would do well to agree to concessions on health care, at least until the country as a whole wakes up and decides to do something about that issue. And the state would do well to rethink its retirement system, because across the board that cost is nearly out of control. The former will require that teachers understand that in some cases, the decision to compromise does far more good than it costs. And for the latter, it will require that a Legislature and governor man-up and tackle a difficult task, rather than giving it lip service and then burying it under a political rug.

That aside, however, it is impossible to deny that our children are in good hands with our teacher corps, and the cost of that corps is far from unreasonable. The job isn't easy, its rewards can be fleeting and dealing with the unfair criticisms must be enervating. So give your child's teacher a clap on the back and a big smile. The job is tough enough as it is.

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