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Challenging Increased Teachers’ Pay as Education Reform

Later this session the Iowa Legislature will debate various measures, namely the Governor’s, designed to improve the performance of our state’s K-12 schools.  There are three main components to the Governor’s proposal and in a continuing series we will look at each separately.  Today we start with the most expensive—the $160 million for increasing the base teacher salary from $28,000 to $35,000 over the next three years.

First things first here, before they appropriate an additional dime of taxpayer money to this system it is both fair and prudent that at least three simple questions be asked and answered—Who are the great teachers in Iowa? Who are the average teachers? and Who are the bad teachers?

To clarify, by “who” I mean a literal list of names district by district categorizing each teacher as great, average, or poor in terms of classroom performance.  Though this sounds simplistic I think most Iowans would be shocked to know how complicated a question this really is—and even further shocked to find out that nobody in the education bureaucracy can currently answer these questions definitively.

All we hear from both political parties is we have great teachers in Iowa, and to both reward this greatness and make sure we have great teachers in the future we have to pay them more.  Even though it’s just as pertinent to fixing the problem, and because it’s not pleasant or politically correct, we never hear about bad teachers in our classrooms.  You would think the first step in solving this problem, as it would be in the private sector, would be determine which employees are not performing their jobs at a high level.

While there is no doubt I am skeptical of most of these individual proposals I will reserve judgment and keep an open mind as legislation is crafted and various amendments are added.  I don’t need to agree with all elements of the final product to support it, but do have to feel that it at least identifies the problem specifically.  As with all issues there is both a policy and a political aspect that need examined.

The Policy

From a policy perspective, to just approve a blanket increase in pay when a majority of our schools are functioning very well is silly—and to spend this money with no clear goal or way of measuring success is flat-out nonsensical.  Common sense says that in order for anyone, especially a Republican, to support a final bill it would have to contain clear benchmarks and ways of actually proving results were being delivered for the extra pay. As it stands now the approach seems to be let’s just pay teachers more money and in theory kids will learn more—which hasn’t proven to be the case in the past.  To make this point beyond question one needs only to consider the following three statistics: 1) since 2002 education appropriations to K-12 schools in Iowa has increased $650 million (+35.4%), 2) the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010, and 3) 4% allowable growth was given every year from 2006 to 2010.  In spite of all these amazing numbers, here we are again talking about more money.

What few seem willing to say is that when a school is failing there are only three actors involved to shoulder the blame—the teachers, the parents, or the students.  Simply put, one of the three, or a combination of all three, are at fault when a school is failing.  When looking at the teachers one obvious element is missing—a way to fairly evaluate how good each one is and how much money they deserve.  Until this gets determined one senses that no amount of increased spending will do the trick.  Here is what I propose.

While unsympathetic to their concerns regarding “teaching to a test”, I’m relatively sympathetic to teacher’s arguments that there are many factors out of their control determining a classes’ progress throughout a school year.  Taking this into account my initial thought on a fair formula to evaluate our teachers (and hence dictate future pay) would look like this: 25%= credit for years on the job and the resulting experience (this would be automatic much like the step and lane increases in the current formula), 25%= based on student achievement using a baseline for the class coming in compared to their results going out, and 50%= determined by a yearly grading and evaluation by their direct superior (usually their principal).

The Politics

From a political standpoint the construct of the increased pay proposal seems to be offering Democrats (the teachers’ union) the following: we will increase teacher pay in exchange for allowing student achievement to be factored in to teacher evaluation.  In my view Republicans shouldn’t be bargaining for a student achievement metric in evaluations—they should be demanding it.  This should be a reality both because it makes perfect sense, and because past reforms and increases in pay have not solved the problem.  Republicans should be able to win on the political argument that, in order to fix the problem, Iowans need to know which teachers are adequately doing their jobs.

If there is a political trade to be made in exchange for increasing teacher pay it should be for a significant look at the benefits of true school choice for parents.  In my mind this would be a four year pilot program in which parents at all failing and sub-standard schools in Des Moines would have the freedom to spend the per-pupil cost attached to their child at any school they chose (with transportation being the responsibility of each participating parent).  All students involved would have their progress tracked, with reports being given to the legislature after years 2 and 4.  This would be similar in principal to the Zaun study bill from last session without all the “extreme” elements, like abolishing the Dept. of Education etc.

I would love to see baby-steps being taken in this direction, and would dare the teachers’ union to make the argument to Iowans that the well-being of the teachers and their union trumps that of a student in a failing school which they staff.

Conclusion

Given the history of failure in select districts and the many fruitless past funding increases, in general I believe the Republican hand on education reform is stronger than the Governor’s proposal recognizes.  There is little reason the argument can’t be made that we have tried the teachers’ union way of never assigning blame and increasing spending—and it has not worked.  If there is going to be reform, let us at least not try the same blanket increases in spending and hope for a different result.  Instead we should identify the shortcomings in the flawed districts and fix them specifically.

Justin Arnold is a contributor for The Conservative Reader.   Opinions expressed are not necessarily the opinion of the Republican Party of Iowa, its staff, and the State Central Committee.


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