Outside of the nation’s capital, however, there are also other issues that have raised the stakes of the upcoming vote.
Education might not be featured across cable news 24/7, but a wave of teacher strikes this year has put a spotlight on education funding in many states. Cut it more or raise it? Disagreement over that question has motivated a growing number of teachers to run for office themselves and has already dealt several blows to Republican contenders.
But to observers in Europe, the mere existence of the U.S. debate has appeared rather strange at times —if not downright tragic. On both sides of the Atlantic, the vast majority of people tend to agree that teachers are important — and that they deserve to be paid well. When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2013 about the professions contributing most to society, teachers came out second, right behind military personnel but ahead of doctors, scientists and engineers.
And yet, somehow, American teachers — unlike anyone else in the top ranks of that list — have actually seen their wages drop over the past decade. That’s a long way from similarly wealthy European nations like Germany, for example, where teachers are among the nation’s top earners and can make more money than web developers or sometimes even entry-level doctors.
Besides the United States, no other developed country has such a large gap between salaries paid to teachers and to professionals with similar degrees. In fact, according to a recent OECD study, teachers’ salaries have increased almost everywhere else since 2005.
Europe’s social welfare states generally perceive education as a right rather than as a privilege. University, for example, is free in many of those nations and some countries like Denmark even pay people to attend college. The importance of public education has translated into higher pay for teachers, who also often benefit from robust employment laws for public servants. In some cases, a lack of qualified teachers has resulted in even higher wages.
But even a decade ago, American teachers were already worse off than their foreign counterparts. While teachers in Luxembourg earned almost 300 percent more than the average employee there, American teachers ranked at the bottom of the list.
Now, one could argue that among the nations that ranked even worse in terms of teacher pay than the United States were Sweden, Norway and Denmark — three countries that still regularly top education quality rankings. Sweden, Norway and Denmark also have some of Europe’s highest overall salaries that far exceed the U.S. average wage, however. So, unlike in some parts of the United States, earning the average wage in those three Nordic countries is usually more than enough to make a comfortable living.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the fading competitiveness of the teaching profession is manifesting itself in recruitment and quality. According to a poll from May, fewer Americans consider a career in teaching to be the right choice for their children, mainly because of low pay. Public schools are already facing a staffing crisis, and the drop in competitiveness will make it worse.
The midterm elections could be one step to adjust teachers’ wages to Americans’ view of them. In some red states, Republican efforts to cut education funding have already resulted in the plummeting popularity of incumbent governors and rising support for contenders more responsive to teachers’ concerns.
In recent polls, women voters expressed especially high levels of voter enthusiasm next month. And besides the fact that women teachers still earn less than their male counterparts, women also tend to place more emphasis on education issues. Regardless of gender, two-thirds of Americans think that the country’s teachers are underpaid.
And as far as Western Europe is concerned, that assumption is more than justified.
Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter who covers Europe and international security issues from The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau.
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