Pay Up

Back in my days in television news, it was common for whatever station I was working at to run a recurring news feature called “Kid’s First,” or “Children First” or something similar.

The idea was to show that we (the station) shared the same family values as our audience.  It also served as a useful generator of advertising revenue—after all, what local business wouldn’t want to pay to be associated with such a family-friendly concept?

We spend a lot of time giving lip service to the value of our children—the rising generation and all that.   Unfortunately we talk the talk a lot better than we walk the walk.

How do we shirk them?  Let me count the ways.  Inadequate day care for working parents.  Lack of after school programs.   The reality of hunger in the richest nation on earth.  The lack of affordable health and dental care for children in families slightly above the poverty line.  Inadequately funded public schools.

I could go on.  But today’s thoughts are concerned with just one way we neglect our children—teacher salaries—and how China is swooping in to beat us at our own game.

The teacher salary gauntlet was thrown down three years ago by a 33-year old Chinese teacher and entrepreneur named Cindy Mi, who said that “if America won’t pay its teachers, I will.”

And from that idea sprang VIPKids, a Chinese on-line school and business that started in 2014 with 200 American teachers, and expects to have 25,000 in its service by 2018.

It may not come as a surprise to learn that Chinese parents are lining up to have a North American teacher teach English, science and math to their children one-on-one in a simple-to-execute video conference format.  We tutor their children from the comfort of our home and theirs.  And we get paid for it.

American teachers who join VIPKids start at $20 per hour if they choose to go full time.  That’s $41,600 per year.  It’s not Trump-style economics, but it’s more than Idaho pays its starting teachers—about $10,000 more.

Once again, no surprise.  It’s true that starting teacher salaries in the US are well ahead of third world countries like Columbia, Mexico, and Chile, but we lag behind countries like Ireland, Germany, and Luxenbourg.  The simple truth is that we may say that nothing is more important than the education of our children, but apparently we don’t mean it.  Instead, we drive away a lot of potentially excellent teachers with our non-starter starting salaries.  National surveys show that entry level brick layers, bakers, and county morgue workers can all expect a higher starting wage than American teachers.

I learned about VIPKids, by the way, from one of my daughters.  She has an Idaho teaching degree and worked for a year at an Idaho Falls elementary school before moving with her husband to Boise, followed by the arrival of a beautiful daughter.  In her first year of teaching she earned $32,000.  Now she works from home, tutoring several Chinese children one-on-one.

Call me crazy, but this doesn’t strike me as a positive trend.  I’m happy for my daughter, but sad for a proud profession that may face future shortages if trained teachers take their skills elsewhere in order to pay the bills.   Not to mention the children who will lose out as teachers find other ways to do what they love.

The good news is that low teacher pay will ultimately be fixed, but it will be fixed by market forces, not out of a moment of moral clarity from legislators.  When more teachers leave the system to go teach online internationally, the resulting teacher shortage will drive up salaries as states compete for the leftovers.  Supply and demand.

But in the meantime, we will continue to shortchange our children in any number of ways, teacher salaries among them, while proclaiming our concern about our kids’ most basic needs.

And in China, children will get a step up in their education by learning English at a young age.  It makes me wonder how many American children are being tutored at home in Mandarin?


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