Opinion

Oscar’s speech on wage equity echoes at school house

Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette used her platform at the winner’s podium to advocate for wage equity for women, proclaiming, “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

As a woman, educator and president of the Washington Education Association, the topic of gender pay inequity is not new to me, though it has been gaining renewed energy recently. Look around. You’ve probably noticed that the vast majority of school staff are women. Indeed, over 75 percent of Washington’s public school employees are female. And lately, what I call the “old stories” seem to be making a comeback.

Teaching assistants are often told that they should be happy to work at their children’s school, as if that’s reason enough to deny them a paycheck that covers the bills. It ignores that many school staff don’t have kids in the building. Many teachers still hear that since their husband has a job, they don’t need to earn as much. Or, the one I find most insulting: “Well, you didn’t go into it for the money.” Just because teaching may be a calling, doesn’t mean educators should take a vow of poverty.

It’s been 52 years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, and women still only make 78 cents on the dollar compared to men.

The American Association of University Women recently delved deeper into that statistic. One year out of college, when education and experience are similar, women earn 7 percent less than men. That gap widens over time, until women earn only 75 to 80 percent of what men are paid. It’s not because they’re moms; childless women take home 82 cents for every man’s dollar.

Teaching, like most women’s work, pays less than male-dominated jobs, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. It’s been this way since the 1800s, when the men in charge didn’t want to tax themselves to pay for teachers. That might explain why today’s budget writers, men who have retired early from high tech companies and live off investments, continue to underpay educators. They ignore the state’s own recommendation to make school pay competitive with jobs requiring similar training and experience.

Today, Washington allocates about $34,000 for a first-year teacher, even though the state determined that it should pay about $52,000, to be competitive. That $18,000 difference would close the gender pay gap for starting teachers in Washington.

It’s time to pay salaries based upon the job requirements, not the gender of the person doing the work. For teachers, and for instructional assistants, school counselors, nurses, office staff and the other mostly women who run and operate our schools.

Lawmakers in Olympia should act to close the gender pay gap and provide competitive pay for school employees, making a meaningful difference, not just a Hollywood ending, for the lives women and families across our state.

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