Let teachers be teachers, not tenants

A great teacher can make a school feel like a home but lately, Miami-Dade County has been taking that idea a bit too literally.

The county’s proposal to build a new middle school by Southside Elementary in Downtown and have teachers live on-site for low rent sets a dangerous precedent. Though the idea has its bright points – such as the appeal of ditching the commute altogether – it ultimately serves as a Band-Aid fix to the larger, more pressing problem of how we treat our teachers.

We ask a lot of them already. Teachers are often full-time parents or grandparents at home and part-time parents at school. They’re researchers, therapists, college counselors, supervisors and maybe someday – for a “little bit of a bonus,” suggested President Donald Trump – armed guards, too. It’s not too much to ask in return, then, that they get to live the other 12 or 15 hours of their lives outside the classroom purely as people and not a live-in resource.

All workers deserve the chance to distance themselves from the company that writes their paychecks. As one teacher told WLRN, “teachers need a buffer zone away from our place of work, in order to recharge mentally and physically, to be a better teacher.” Inviting teachers to live at school blurs the line between “home” and “work,” potentially expanding the expectation of constant availability – emotional or otherwise – so often placed on teachers, even when they’re technically off the clock.

Other school districts have tried teacher housing. In California, Santa Clara’s Casa del Maestro (“Teacher’s House”) offers charming red-roofed, low rent apartments and plenty of lush grassy space to enjoy. But Miami is no Santa Clara. Apartments sandwiched between school and a busy metro street sound less idyllic.

Sure, no part of the county’s proposal suggests that the teachers must live onsite. They won’t be expected to even if the Southside plan works and expands to land adjacent to Overtown’s Phyllis Wheatley Elementary. But to propose these options to cash-strapped teachers would be to recommend these living arrangements. Who wouldn’t take the county up on that offer considering teachers’ salaries? When paired against median rent prices in the city, Miami teachers’ salaries don’t go far at all. In fact, Miami’s rent-to-salary ratio is one of the worst in the country.

But why tackle this as a housing problem and not a salary problem? Probably because the latter is easier to dance around. It’s less tangible than an apartment (or lack thereof), and it’s firmly ingrained in our communal status quo. As kids, we all learn that teachers make less money. It’s practically a given but it can’t be anymore, not in one of the country’s most expensive cities.

Real estate is notoriously volatile and finite. Even if the proposed projects at Southside and Phyllis Wheatley worked perfectly for the handful of teachers who got to live there, what happens to the rest of them? What happens when a foreign investor wants to turn that housing development into a luxury condo? Miami isn’t exactly known for maintaining low-income housing options in the face of millionaires.

What’s more, teacher housing necessitates a built-in dependency on the district. Teachers should feel secure knowing that their ability to feel “at home” does not depend – directly or indirectly – on their experience at work or the decisions of their employer.

Miami-Dade should, instead, focus on ensuring an across-the-board living wage. Even easing the financial burden through reimbursing out-of-pocket purchases would be a start.

Of course, these efforts will require state cooperation, something Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t always been willing to give. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have analyzed “cost-of-living disparity” in all of the state’s counties, a move that might have allowed Miami-Dade to up its wages in response to the exorbitant price of living here.

Still, we’ve got to start somewhere and however well-meaning these projects might be, they can’t help but detract from the real problem.

While this attempt at a solution misses the point, we don’t have to just go along with it. In tandem with movements such as Oklahoma teachers’ push for better pay and school conditions, we ought to be speaking up alongside them. Where would we be without them, anyway?

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.