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The Teacher Compensation Debate

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." When Oscar Wilde wrote those words in The Picture of Dorian Gray 120 years ago, he had no idea that they would eventually apply to public schools. I thought of the connection after reading "Critical Issues in Assessing Teacher Compensation" by Jason Richwine and Andrew G. Biggs that was released on Jan. 10 (Backgrounder No. 2638, The Heritage Foundation).

The report was written as a response to misconceptions arising from the authors' earlier paper "Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers" that was made public on Nov. 1, 2011 (Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 11-03). Readers can decide for themselves after reading both reports in their entirety if Richwine and Biggs are successful in rebutting the 12 issues they identify. Their conclusion, however, bears repeating here: "Public-school teacher compensation is far ahead of what comparable private-sector workers enjoy, and that recruiting more effective teachers will be more difficult than simply raising salaries."

I agree with the second part of the conclusion, but I wonder if Richwine and Biggs understand the first part. By focusing exclusively on the compensation of public school teachers (forget about working conditions and the like), they lose sight of a much larger issue. To wit: What is the worth of teaching young people in a democracy? Is it ever possible to put a number on it in the same way that a number is put on services provided in the world of business?

Richwine and Biggs argue in an essay in Education Week that this is an example of what they call "emotional statements about teachers" ("Are Teachers Overpaid? A Response to Critics," Jan. 11). They believe that teachers should receive "no more and no less than fair-market compensation for their skills. Only the data can tell us whether that is happening." Yet they are strangely mute about compensation paid to CEOs who run a company into the ground and yet walk away with eye-popping severance packages. I wrote about this common practice on Jan. 11 ("Why Judge CEOs and Teachers Differently"). I'd like to know if they include what is taking place as "fair-market compensation?"

If teachers are indeed overpaid relative to similarly educated workers in the private sector, as the authors maintain, wouldn't the latter who were laid off and unable to find work despite months of searching eventually turn to teaching? But according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of teaching credentials issued in California, fell 29 percent from 28,039 in 2004-05 to 20,032 in 2009-10. There's something more going on here than Richwine and Biggs acknowledge.

I say that because California tends to be a bellwether for the nation. As a result, its experience cannot be dismissed out of hand as an aberration, particularly since the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 1.6 million new teachers will be needed in the decade ahead. Of course, we can continue to engage in the debate whether teachers are overpaid or underpaid. But it will do little to recruit and retain top talent to the classroom. That's a fact - not an emotional statement.

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