In 2008, the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute issued a report asserting that teachers are paid less than comparable private-sector workers. The conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute responded with assertions that EPI had misleadingly manipulated what was already less reliable self-reported federal data to achieve its desired result.

In October, the Economic Policy Institute updated its report and repeated its finding that public school teachers are underpaid and the gap with the private sector is widening. AEI responded with an analysis of EPI’s methods, what it called “Debunking the myth of the ‘teacher pay gap,’ again.”

That should have been the last of this dispute for another several years, but last month EPI issued a New Jersey version of October’s report, written by Jeffrey Keefe, a former Rutgers labor-relations associate professor.

Keefe previously authored nearly a couple dozen EPI reports supporting pay levels for public employees in various states. He told The Press he prepared the one on N.J. teachers largely in response to Gov. Chris Christie’s criticism of teachers. Last year, Christie firmly opposed a constitutional amendment requiring that teacher and other public worker pensions be funded ahead of all other state spending, and Democrats subsequently abandoned the effort to put the referendum on November’s ballot.

Keefe’s report said the average annual 2012-2014 wage of teachers in New Jersey was $68,301 vs. the $82,223 wage of comparable full-time private workers.

The American Enterprise Institute said this latest report by EPI repeats most of the shortcomings of its original 2008 version. For example: Only about a third of the value of teacher pensions, which pay defined benefits for life, are included in the calculation. The value of health coverage for retirees — full until they reach normal retirement age and then supplementary thereafter — isn’t included at all. “Comparable” workers were chosen as if a teaching degree was worth as much as an engineering degree.

AEI said the current EPI reports drop a previous disputed claim that “teachers work at least as many hours each week as comparable college graduates.” And Keefe said he thought it odd the high number of weeks (47.5 a year) teachers reported as working.

Teachers contract to work 180 classroom days plus five others, or 37 weeks a year.

If the $68,301 is for 37 weeks, the annual wage for working the 51.2 weeks reported by private-sector employees would be $94,514.

Statistics can be disputed endlessly and conclusions based on them must remain tentative.

The labor market for teachers, though, suggests AEI criticisms might be valid.

In most labor markets, fair compensation levels are determined by demand for and supply of qualified workers. But for public school teachers, union and political restrictions on the market prevent that from happening.

For a sense of the above-market value received by teachers, consider the tens of millions spent by the teachers union in just a single state legislative election to ensure that value is preserved and enhanced. The union spent $3 million on just the most recent Assembly races in two South Jersey districts.

If school boards were paying only what was needed to ensure the employment of quality teachers, there would be no need for massive campaign spending and logistical support to ensure the election of politicians who will deliver current or better levels of pay and benefits.

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