Monday, January 09, 2006

But Will Raising Teacher Pay Help Students?

Look for a good old-fashioned bipartisan snow job this winter from our General Assembly on teacher pay in Kentucky. Taxpayers need to call a halt to this before it is too late.

We have heard the teachers' union complain about teacher pay for so long that it has become part of the wallpaper, accepted as true and never scrutinized. But distressingly often when education bureaucrats' statements do face scrutiny, they come up short. A look at some of these statements might give us pause on this hot-button issue.

Just this past August, we heard weeping and wailing about how Kentucky had fallen to 50th in state spending for education under Governor Fletcher. Turned out that Governing Magazine, the first source of this dire statistic, had used 2002 Census Bureau statistics. Stuck on blasting the Governor even for something that happened two years before he took office, some groups such as the Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance, the Kentucky Democratic Party, and most of the state's mainstream media outlets persist in promoting this falsehood today.

This fall I learned gains in ACT scores touted by the Kentucky Department of Education evaporate when private school and home school students are removed from the statistics. Last time I checked, these students didn't fall under the purview of the state's public education system. From a cynical, no-holds-barred point of view, taking credit for something they didn't do might be considered a shrewd piece of work. But coming from government officials who make policy affecting the lives of our children, this is extremely disappointing.

The sorry track record of those who have made careers out of demanding more and more money, coupled with Kentucky's failure to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind student testing component nearly provides the proper context in which to examine the idea of greatly increasing teacher pay.

For help with that, we turn to North Carolina. Researchers at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh sought to examine similar claims of insufficient teacher pay in their state by making an apples-to-apples comparison of all the states. What they found was interesting: North Carolina's national salary ranking of 23rd was corrected to 11th when benefits were added in and relative cost-of-living was figured in. Cost of living is significant in the real world. New Jersey's $53,663 average salary goes roughly 70% as far in New Jersey as it does here in Kentucky. That helps put New Jersey's teachers at the bottom in pay nationally and Kentucky ranks number five.

That's right. Kentucky's teachers are the fifth best paid teachers in the nation. That should have been the education story of the year last year, but chances are excellent that you are seeing it for the first time here.

The current effort in Frankfort to bring Kentucky teacher pay up is said to keep them from escaping to higher salaries in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Georgia. Interestingly, of those states Indiana actually pays less than Kentucky in terms of real dollars. Louisville-area Kentuckians who run across the bridge to teach in the Hoosier state might actually want to take another look at the fringe benefits offered to Kentucky teachers. They make the total compensation here in the Bluegrass higher than that of Indiana. Ohio, Illinois, and Georgia join Michigan as the only states in the nation that have higher average teacher compensation than Kentucky. They all possess better education statistics than we do, but so do nearly all of the states who pay their teachers less than we do. I fail to see how adding enough to move us from #5 to #3 in teacher pay nationally is going to do much to benefit our children, who seem to be faring much worse than their teachers. Maybe they need a students' union.

Before we risk busting the budget with even higher teacher pay, skeptical taxpayers would do well to demand proof that it will actually help student performance commensurate with the high cost being suggested now. Given that Kentucky teacher pay already compares so favorably with other states, perhaps we need to look elsewhere first to improve student benefits.