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Teachers Must be Defended

Time magazine recently had a cover story bashing teachers that was not just one-sided, but as misleading as less-respected voices on talk radio and cable TV.

Soon, such ill-founded resentment may echo in grumbling about schools’ holiday break or in misinformed complaints that teachers don’t work enough, are overpaid, have exorbitant pensions, or cause local property owners to shoulder inflated real estate taxes to fund lousy-performing schools.

Teachers must be defended.

It is elected representatives more interested in re-election than governing who have neglected their duties, not teachers. Faced with budget challenges, lawmakers must cut government where permissible (knowing some citizens will object), or raise revenues such as taxes (knowing some voters will object).

So little gets done.

As to the tired complaints: Local school boards ultimately decide the length of school years based on a state funding formula, but most teachers work a 174-day year. Since class days are fewer than eight hours, it’s not illogical to assume teachers work “half a year.” However, as Pennsylvania journalist Walt Brasch shows, “There are 365 days in a year. Subtract two days a week, which the average worker does not work, and that leaves 261 days. Next, remove 10 days of vacation. That leaves 251 days. Next, there are state and federal holidays, bracketed by New Year’s Day and Christmas. Generally, most businesses accept the 10 federal holidays. That leaves 241 days.”

Sure, 174 is less than 241, but teachers’ days and weeks are actually longer than 9 to 5 or Monday through Friday. Teachers start before school, stay late to prep for the next day or student activities, and then – at home most nights and weekends – grade papers, prepare lesson plans, study teaching methods, and keep up with their specialties. Teachers spend holidays – any break, from Christmas to summer vacation – catching up on scoring tests and reading papers, planning for the classes and semesters, attending professional conferences, and taking classes to stay certified and improve their teaching and expertise. It’s demanding.

Victor Devinatz, Distinguished Professor of Management at Illinois State University, said, “Teaching has a high burnout rate. Many leave the profession within five years.”

Bill Knight

As for teachers’ pay, the starting salary for Illinois teachers – who must have a college degree – is $37,500, according to the survey cited in Forbes magazine, and the average wage overall (including Chicago and affluent suburbs) is $58,686. That seems generous, but it’s below those with similar education and experience. The Economic Policy Institute says public school teachers are paid about 19 percent less than professionals with similar qualifications, and some, notably in sciences and math, may be paid less than half of what others with their backgrounds receive.

Critics also complain about pensions. In Illinois, the problem isn’t teachers, who paid their share of contributions, but the failure of Democratic and Republican administrations and legislatures alike to meet government’s legal obligation to contribute to the pension system. (Also, public employees like teachers don’t receive Social Security for their years of working for government.)

Like every workplace, education has lazy or less-competent teachers, but contrary to Time and education-bashers, teachers – even tenured – can be fired for cause. Also, some parents are slackers, doing little to help kids learn, instead instilling in their families unfair stereotypes of teachers.

Finally, taxpayers have a point about funding schools. The notion of school districts depending on property values and taxes is outdated and must be changed to let less affluent areas have the same caliber of education as richer districts. Schools get less help from state and federal sources than local taxes. Urban and rural areas don’t have the property tax base that suburban areas do, yet fixed expenditures such as buses and books make the burden heavy there.

Many politicians claim to support education, but action falls short of oratory.

Teachers must be defended.

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.