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Sketching a Workable Way Forward on Teacher Pay

In education circles, 2018 is going to be remembered as the year of the teacher strike. After decades of general labor peace in schooling, the spring was marked by a series of high-profile walkouts in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, and the repercussions are still playing out—in next month's election races and the threat of new unrest. After years of overcaffeinated reformers treating teachers as punching bags (at least when they weren't treating them as cute little puppies), this has spurred a healthy, overdue discussion of teacher pay.

Over in the pages of National Review, I offer some thoughts on what a deal on teacher pay should look like. The context, of course, is that a string of victories and wave of public support have teachers feeling more empowered than they have in a long while. In Education Next's annual poll, two-thirds of respondents said that teachers in their state deserved a raise and 53 percent supported the right of teachers to strike (with just 32 percent opposed).

Given all that, here's how I sketch the challenge and the context in the National Review piece:

For starters, here's the bizarre dynamic at the heart of all this: Teachers have a legitimate gripe about take-home pay, even though school spending keeps going up. Nationally, after-inflation teacher pay actually declined by 2 percent from 1992 to 2014, even as real per-pupil spending grew by 27 percent. This disparity is particularly evident in strike states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, where teacher pay fell even as real per-pupil spending increased by more than 35 percent.

This dynamic is mostly a product of two things. One is that schools have added staff—particularly support staff—at a rate that far outpaces growth in student enrollment. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell by 12 percent between 1992 and 2014 even as the number of non-teaching staff grew by 10 percent. In Kentucky, over that period, the non-teaching workforce grew 41 percent—six times as fast as student enrollment. Nationally, between 1992 and 2014, student enrollment grew by 20 percent, the number of teachers by 29 percent—and non-teaching staff by 47 percent.

The second reason salaries have fallen despite increased spending is that teacher pensions and health care have cannibalized paychecks. Between 2003 and 2014, even as teacher salaries declined, the per-teacher cost of benefits rocketed nationally from $14,000 to $21,000. An outsized share of this spending flows to retirees and to propping up underfunded pension systems—doing nothing for those working in classrooms today. As former Obama-administration official Chad Aldeman has calculated, West Virginia teachers could receive a salary boost of more than $11,000 each, tomorrow, if the state had no pension-debt costs.

Teachers have a strong case, but they'll do well not to overplay their hand. Their public support is more fragile than the poll numbers and walkout wins might suggest. That's because the public thinks teachers earn a lot less than they do, and that schools spend less than they do. In the 2018 Education Next poll, respondents guessed that the average teacher in their state earned just over $40,000—whereas, in 2015-16, it was actually over $58,000. The average respondent also guessed that schools spent $8,600 a year per pupil, when the real figure (back in 2013-14) was $12,900, or 50 percent higher. When the public is provided the real numbers, support for increased spending on schools declines from 59 percent to 47 percent. For increased teacher pay, support plunges from 67 to 48 percent.

There's a win-win lurking here. But it requires a willingness to rethink how teachers are paid and school dollars are spent. After all, after-inflation K-12 spending has grown by 400 percent over the past 50 years—yet few would argue that it has delivered satisfactory teacher pay, much less the hoped-for outcomes. Reform without dollars isn't practical or politically viable, but dollars without reform is a failed recipe—one primed to sow the seeds of taxpayer rebellion. Given that, a serious deal has four parts.

Check out National Review for a more detailed rendering, but here's the simple version:

First, we need to acknowledge that teachers are woefully underpaid in many states, and that attracting and retaining talented professionals means we have to pay teachers like professionals. In many states, this will require some additional revenue.

Second, new dollars shouldn't subsidized outdated pay systems that fail to create routes for professional growth and that overpay lousy teachers.

Third, more pay has to be coupled with a commitment to trimming bureaucratic bloat—simply because the cost for ranks of paper-shufflers and not-so-great instructional coaches makes it much tougher to swing big salary boosts for classroom instructors.

Finally, we need to overhaul benefits. Today's benefit costs make it tough for the math to work on a dramatic boost in take-home pay. Meanwhile, today's pension systems routinely penalize young teachers, those who move across state lines, and those for whom teaching is a second profession.

As I concluded in National Review:

Policymakers should be on the side of teachers, but standing with teachers can't mean betraying the trust of students, families, or taxpayers. If today's policymakers are willing to tackle administrative bloat and anachronistic compensation systems, it's possible to boost teacher pay by 20 percent, pay terrific teachers six figures, leave class sizes stable, and do it with a measured, disciplined increase in revenue. That's a deal that teachers, taxpayers, and solution-oriented public officials should all be able to accept.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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