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Jack Smith

Teachers and Other Priceless Commodities

June 23, 1988|Jack Smith

Everything is relative.

I suggested the other day that Big Bear schoolteacher Caroline Green, who taught her pupils to grasp the 6 million death toll of the Nazi Holocaust by tearing The Times into 1 million pieces, might be worth as much money as Magic Johnson.

Understandably, I am challenged on that proposition.

Among others, David Carl Argall of La Puente states flatly that "Caroline Green is very clearly not worth as much as Magic Johnson."

Argall observes that people often grumble about the big paychecks that stars receive. Fact is, he says, "The grumbler is less worth his pay than is the target of his envy."

I think he means that the $400-a-week bricklayer is less worth his salary than Johnson is worth the $40,000 or so he earns in a week. He is not simply saying that the bricklayer is worth less than Johnson; he is saying that the bricklayer is less worth his own pay than Johnson is his.

Now that leaves some room for argument. I do not doubt that Johnson is worth $2 million a year and I do not begrudge him that amount, though I may be envious. As Argall points out, Johnson is undoubtedly worth more than $2 million a year to the World Champion Lakers or they wouldn't pay him that much.

He is worth it as far as I'm concerned. For sheer athletic skill, leadership and courage, he is certainly among the most beautiful and exciting of our gladiators. Add his engaging personality, and he is indeed Magic. He is out there on the court showing what he can do every day. He is undoubtedly worth $2 million a year more than some corporate executive is, sitting behind a big empty desk that he has reached more by chicanery, duplicity and the corporate buddy system than by sheer ability, and who hasn't the slightest idea what he's doing, except sitting pretty.

I have an idea that far fewer athletes earn more than they're worth than business executives do, since the loss of their skills becomes immediately obvious and their public appeal fades.

Argall produces a series of calculations, based on the probable increase in ultimate earnings per pupil per year of schooling, and figuring in the teacher's contribution to that extra earning power, and concludes that a teacher is worth about $26,000 a year.

Bypassing the math, evidently knowing my gross ineptitude in that field, Argall points out that nobody is forced to pay Johnson. His fans pay to see him, either on TV or in the flesh, and the Lakers pay him in proportion to what he brings in. Fair enough.

Argall notes further that the teacher is paid out of tax dollars, and consequently is "merely a step or two removed from a mugger. We can't immediately say the schoolteacher is worthless (though a number of jobs financed by taxpayer dollars very much are, and may even be greatly harmful), but the fact people must be forced to pay is a strong proof that the teacher is overpaid if anything. . . ."

Taxes also pay police officers, firefighters, trash collectors, public defenders, librarians and dogcatchers; mostly they are capable and hard- working; mostly their organizations are lean and well run; unlike S&Ls, they rarely fail.

Obviously schoolteachers can't be paid $2 million a year, any more than they can be paid $84 million for two years, like Bill Cosby; $74 million, like Sylvester Stallone; $56 million, like Bruce Springsteen; or $47 million, like Madonna (Forbes magazine figures for 1986 and 1987).

If any of our schoolteachers had the sex appeal of Madonna or the athletic skill of Magic Johnson, undoubtedly they would be working in front of cameras and audiences and making big bucks; most of them, however, don't have that special quality that rings the cash register in America.

So they work with children who are notoriously recalcitrant, petulant, unresponsive, belligerent, saucy, stubborn, inattentive and unreachable, when they aren't being adorable, and whose education sometimes requires of teachers the patience, dedication and courage of zoologists teaching chimpanzees how to talk.

We taxpayers are always grumbling about how much taxes take out of our paychecks, but no society is any better than its police officers, firefighters, trash collectors, public defenders, librarians and dogcatchers, and we ought to pay them according to their value.

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