BERLIN — Midterm elections have rarely captivated Americans' attention, but this year’s elections are shaping up to be different. Voter enthusiasm has spiked following the polarizing Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Outside the nation’s capital, however, other issues have raised the stakes of the upcoming vote. Education may 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 about that question has motivated a growing number of teachers to run for office and has 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 that contribute the most to society, teachers came in second, right behind military personnel and ahead of doctors, scientists and engineers.
And yet, somehow, the wages of American teachers — unlike anyone else in the top ranks of that list — have dropped over the past decade. That’s a long way from similarly wealthy European nations such as 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. College, for example, is free in many of those nations, and some countries, such as Denmark, even pay people to attend. 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.
Those transatlantic differences didn’t emerge overnight. While teachers in Luxembourg earned almost three times as much as the average employee there in 2004, American teachers already ranked at the bottom of the list at the time.
Now, one could argue that among the nations that ranked even worse in terms of teacher pay than the United States were Denmark and Norway — countries that still regularly top education quality rankings. Denmark and Norway 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 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 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’ views of them. In some red states, Republican efforts to cut education funding have resulted in the plummeting popularity of governors and rising support for contenders more responsive to teachers’ concerns.
In recent polls, female voters expressed especially high levels of voter enthusiasm ahead of next month’s election, which could be significant because 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 view is more than justified.