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Is the teacher housing crisis really a myth?

Just as Silicon Valley leaders are hoping to sell the public on a new tax partly to help recruit and retain qualified teachers, the Mercury News debunks the widely held impression that the average teacher can’t afford to buy a home in Santa Clara County.

Not only are most able to buy there, the Mercury News reported on Feb. 2, but teachers are doing better than other Valley employees with a similar education.

Averages, however, can mislead when they describe disparate groups. The average of your net wealth and Bill Gates' makes you look a lot richer than you are.

A closer look at the census data for Santa Clara County shows that public and private school teachers don't cluster around the average. If you divide teachers into three age groups each about 15 years wide, the middle group is actually the smallest. And the group nearing retirement is the largest.

Housing crisis real for younger teachers

Home ownership is typical in the middle and older groups. For them, the housing crisis is indeed a myth. But it's as real as a rejected mortgage application for teachers under 35.

The census data underlying the Mercury News' analysis show that purchasing a house is a serious obstacle for younger teachers. Only about one in three manage it. That’s no worse than those with a similar education in the Valley. Young teachers are not unique.

Not only is the lack of affordable homes real for young teachers, the overall number of teachers for whom it is real is likely to grow over time. As the Mercury News also reported, between 30 and 50% of educators quit during their first five years. That level of turnover means a substantial fraction of the county's teachers will remain at lower entry-level wage scales. At the same time, the bulge of teachers 50 and older who have been able to buy homes will retire.

As that experienced group leaves the classroom, the proportion of teachers able to own their homes will likely fall.

Teacher home ownership falling

In fact, the Mercury News report contained evidence that this may be happening already. In 1990, the census estimate found 76% of teachers owned their homes. In 2000, only 66%. That’s a 10 percentage point drop -- far greater than the 1 percentage point decline in home ownership for the overall Valley workforce during the decade.

"The situation today is not nearly as bad as the projected problem tomorrow,” said Porter Sexton, executive director of the Center for Educational Planning at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. “Lots of teachers with credentials are retiring and we're not graduating enough replacements."

When shown this analysis, Tracey Kaplan and Griff Palmer, the Mercury News reporters who researched and wrote the story, pointed out that they had convincingly debunked the myth that teachers are worse off than other college grads when it comes to buying homes.

They are correct. But that doesn't make the housing crisis any less real for Valley school districts trying to recruit and retain qualified teachers.

Debunking myths is valuable

Busting myths -- particularly those affecting public policy -- is one of the most important tasks of journalism. And this story was meticulously researched, carefully mining newly available statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. It represents a quantum improvement over “he said/she said” and anecdotal answers to empirical questions.

The Mercury News analysis will enrich the civic debate before November when Santa Clara County voters may be asked to endorse a parcel tax to improve public schools as well as recruit and retain certified teachers. But its categorical conclusion, "Teacher housing crisis a myth," should not torpedo the case for assisting young teachers in gaining a toe-hold in one of the nation's most expensive housing markets.

Disclosure: The author's wife is director of housing and transportation for the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. Its CEO, Carl Guardino, is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force considering the parcel tax for schools. Mr. Guardino was not consulted for this article.

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