The Teacher Tax

I am writing in response to Luke Duncan’s October 11th article, “The Teacher Tax.” While I admire Mr. Duncan’s concern for the finances of fellow students and the economics of education, I feel compelled to put to rest some of the fallacious conclusions contained in the article. A “Teacher Tax”, while an entertaining rhetorical device, is not an apt description of the course packets on sale in the bookstore.

Instructors throughout academia publish their work with an eye toward widespread distribution. These publications are the vehicle that drives our educational system, financial compensation for such work is the fuel that powers that vehicle. While it is romantic to hold onto the ideal that teachers teach for love of the educational process, and while that is certainly true in many cases, even teachers have to pay the bills. Published works such as textbooks, study guides, workbooks, and course packets are intended for an audience that far exceeds the author’s classroom inhabitants; they are intended for use on a much broader scale. The amount of time and effort that writing and organizing such a work requires is way above and beyond that which an instructor’s salary is designed to cover. While it would be appreciated if instructors would give of their spare time for free, such charity should not be required.

The article goes on to make the statement that course packets should be sold at cost; and on this point I agree wholeheartedly. The students should be charged only for the expenses that go into the creation of these valuable learning materials (plus the bookstore’s profit margin). Of course, those costs should include the time and effort required to produce such a text in addition to those expenses incurred through publication and distribution. While new ideas are often wrought of self-sacrifice, comparatively few innovations are derived purely from altruism. Even Lawrence Lessig, the creator of the Creative Commons licensing movement, recognizes the importance of revenue-generation to the creative process. One of the components of the “copy-left” system he has created is exclusively used to license for-profit publishing.

Have some teachers found a nice side income? The question is asked with the implied timbre of accusation, as if the desire to acquire money in exchange for performing a task is something of which we should be ashamed. The concept of payment for services rendered is one of the ideas on which our economy is based. An engineer at an automotive company is paid for his work at the plant. When he uses that knowledge to repair a car on his own time, it is perfectly reasonable for that engineer to expect payment for his time. Time is a valuable commodity, and should be valued as greatly as the material cost of text production. It is safe to assume that most of the students here at Henry Ford are spending their tuition money in the hopes that they, too, can find a job where their time will be compensated for.

I, too, feel the strain of my financial situation each semester when I join the long lines in the student bookstore. Make no mistake, it is a problem shared by the bulk of the student body, and there is, perhaps, a need for some type of reform. Rest assured, however, that a supposed “Teacher Tax”, as defined by Mr. Duncan’s article, is not the source of said reform. Without the ability to make money from publishing, innovation in the area of schoolbook development would almost certainly grind to a halt.