Manassas Journal Messenger | Teachers come into money

NORFOLK – Public school teachers used to earn less than just about everyone else with a college degree. No longer.

Years of lobbying lawmakers have paid off. Throughout the nation, teachers’ hourly earnings rival the paychecks of accountants and engineers.

As state employees in Virginia, teachers receive retirement and health benefits that surpass many professions in private business. Plus, teachers work almost two months less a year than most other college-educated workers.

Data culled by The Virginian-Pilot for a story published today show that a teaching career may not make someone rich, but it can provide a comfortable living with job security, time off and a sizeable retirement paycheck.

Teachers and their powerful unions counter that shaping future generations is an immense responsibility. “A teacher molds a life of a child,” Princess Moss, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey, pegged the nationwide public school teachers’ average annual salary at $46,629 in 2004. That was more than the average worker and $8,700 less than the average for all occupations requiring the equivalent of a college degree.

But making it on a teacher’s salary alone can be difficult, some say.

For the last decade, Karen DiDomenico, has worked as a waitress while teaching elementary school.

“Sometimes I think, ‘I really don’t want to work today’ because I’ve worked all week,” said DiDomenico, a single mother who raised two daughters.

Teachers are often envied for having summers off and most don’t choose to get another job. On average, professionals work 232 eight-hour days a year, including paid holidays and vacation, the federal survey shows. Teachers work an average of 187 days, 7.5 hours a day.

Teacher advocates argue that their summer breaks offset the extra time teachers work – about 15 hours a week, according to a federal study.

Teachers receive other perks,including up to 20 unpaid holidays and 10 paid sick days per year. The average private worker gets about eight paid holidays and nine sick days.

As companies are reining in pensions and health insurance coverage, teachers are generally more secure:

• Only 22 percent of all private-sector employees have access to defined benefit pension plans, with more companies offering 401(k) plans instead, according to the labor bureau.

• All Virginia teachers are part of the state’s pension plan, and they usually don’t have to fund their pensions.

• When teachers retire with full benefits, they get an annual payment of 51 percent of their average salary for their three highest-paid years. Last year, the Virginia Retirement System paid out more than $925 million to 50,530 retired teachers or their beneficiaries.

• The system’s average annual payment to them was $18,306 last year. Virginia retirees, who are 65 or older and worked for private companies, receive an average of $11,944, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates.

• On the job, teachers pay $230 a year less than private sector workers for individual health insurance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the VEA.

Teacher unions have played a large role in winning the generous pay and benefits. Together, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers claim 4.1 million members, and they gave more than $6.4 million to campaigns during the last presidential election. The VEA and its regional offices also gave significant amounts.

This summer, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine earmarked enough money for 4 percent raises for most Virginia teachers.

Regular pay increases are needed to retain good teachers, said Chesapeake Superintendent W. Randolph Nichols.

But when it comes to teacher salaries, the question for taxpayers is: How much is enough?

“I try to remind my colleagues that more is only better to a point,” said Dan Edwards of the Virginia Beach School Board.

Teacher advocates hold up the national average as the ideal. For the 2004-05 school year, it was $47,808, according to the NEA.

Marian Flickinger, the president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, said the ideal is a starting salary around $50,000.

“There’s a connection between what people make and how much what they do is respected,” Flickinger said.

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