Washington State Teachers Shout,”Show Me The Money!”

Finally, Washington State teachers are getting paid more fairly given the importance of their hard work. At least in 2018-2019.

Due to increased funding for teacher salaries as a result of a long awaited court decision, all 295 school districts have to negotiate individual agreements with their teachers. Despite school starting tomorrow, 6-7% of the districts still have not settled.

The result has been a serious money grab, meaning teachers are paying no attention to whether the serious raises they’re winning are sustainable beyond 2018-2019. And I completely understand that. “We’ve been underpaid for way too long,” teachers are saying. “This is the time to right that wrong. Let others determine the sustainability and put the pieces back together if it proves not to be.”

Starting teachers will now make 50-65k, veteran teachers, 100-115k. To which I say, right on! I celebrate my teacher friends’ improved salaries not just because of my fondness for them as individuals, but because I think it has the potential to strengthen the profession which would be a significant step toward thriving communities.

But it only has the potential if the markedly improved salaries are sustainable and they most likely are not unless the state legislature loosens limits on levy spending on salaries. Time will tell how sympathetic the state legislators are to hemorrhaging districts. My guess, not very. This is two steps forward, in a year’s time, anticipate one large one back.

Some of the unintended consequences of suddenly improved teacher salaries:

• Unless today’s gains are partially or largely clawed back in subsequent negotiations, college graduates will give teaching much more serious consideration. Teacher education programs will see more applicants, and therefore, be more selective. Teacher candidates will be more representative of their undergraduate graduating classes, meaning stronger academically. Hopefully, they’ll have similar heart.

• Recruiting future school administrators will be much more difficult. Washington State administrators are not included in the large salary improvements teachers are making. Consequently, now, in some cases, top teacher pay equals administrators’ pay. To which some principals in the state are asking, “Why am I working 60 more days a year, with added hours and stress, without any additional compensation?” Fewer applicants to administrator preparation programs means principal certification programs will be less selective, meaning a dilution in the quality of future school leaders.

• Teacher education and Principal Certification programs will have a much harder time recruiting quality faculty. At my university, Assistant Professor’s begin in the low 50’s, which is less than a 23 year-old graduate of any of our teacher education programs will now make. So imagine that 23 year old says to me, “I want your job in ten years, what would you advise.” I’d say, “Teach 6-7 years, then spend 3-4 years getting a PhD (consider not just the cost of tuition, but the lost salary) and then apply. If successful, you’ll make about 60% of what you would if you had continued your K-12 teaching career.” University life has many advantages, but how many people can afford that kind of economic hit?

I’m sure there are other ripple effects I’m not anticipating, but these are important ones. Stay tuned sports fans, should be interesting.

 

 

 

Fewer Pharisees, More Calzones

Using Facebook, our state legislator writes to local teachers about Washington State’s new two-year budget. He explains how the Democrats fought for even larger teacher salary increases, how the Republicans plan to slow future increases, and how the Dems and him will fight for bigger bumps going forward.

Also explains how he’s going to donate the difference between his larger state legislature salary increase (as a percentage) and teachers’ to a charity that helps teachers add to their classroom supplies without spending their own money.

And the positive comments poured in from appreciative teachers. But all I could think about while reading his missive was I could never be a politician because it’s not enough to do the right thing, you have to make sure everyone knows about it. In my view, that detracts from it. There’s still lots of Pharisees praying in public squares. Probably always will be.

We need fewer Pharisees and more calzones.

farley-katz-a-calzone-says-to-a-pizza-slice-i-ve-got-everything-you-ve-got-and-more-new-yorker-cartoon

Thanks to Farley Katz for permission to share his work.

I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

BF-AH180_12taxr_G_20140411180904

The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

North Carolina’s Downward Public School Spiral

Deborah R. Gerhardt for “Citizen of the First Part of 2014” for detailing in this Slate magazine essay the downward spiral of public education in North Carolina and also for acting to reverse it. She writes:

North Carolina’s intentional assault on public education is working. It is pushing our best teachers out. In 1997 the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay. The year before, Gov. Jim Hunt had run on a platform to invest in public education. After he was elected, he worked with the Republican House Speaker to focus on excellence in teaching and raised teacher salaries up to the national average in just four years. That bipartisan investment paid off. In the 1990s our public student test scores rose more than any other state’s. North Carolina became known as “the education state.” As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation.

Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us—“the education state”—sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay. North Carolina teachers earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And if you look at trends over the past decade, we rank dead last: After adjusting for inflation, North Carolina lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of 1 percent. A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800. Our school district lost a candidate to a district in Kentucky because its starting salary was close to $40,000. It takes North Carolina teachers more than 15 years to earn $40,000; in Virginia it may take only four. Gap store managers on average make about $56,000.

If you talk to a teacher in North Carolina, you will hear the bitter truth of how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Most teachers . . . work at least one extra job.  An elementary school teacher told me that his daughters do not have the chance to play soccer or cello like his students. He has no discretionary income left to spare.

How did this happen? Both political parties share responsibility. When the recession began, the Democrats in power froze teacher pay. After years of salary stagnation, in 2013, Republicans made the following changes: Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated. A new law created vouchers so that private academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left. While requiring schools to adopt the Common Core standards, the legislature slashed materials budgets. According to the National Education Association, we fell to 48th in per-pupil expenditures. State funds for books were cut by about 80 percent, to allocate only $14.26 a year per student. Because you can’t buy even one textbook on that budget, teachers are creating their own materials at night after a long day of work.

As if that weren’t enough, the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants even though the student population grew.  North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008. The result?  Teachers have more students, no current books, and fewer professionals trained to address special needs, and their planning hours are gone now that they must cover lunch and recess.

For public school teachers in North Carolina, the signals sent by this legislation are unambiguous: North Carolina does not value its teachers.

Free-market loving Americans argue that workers are motivated by pay, but by remaining ignorant of what it’s like to be a public school teacher, many convince themselves teachers are paid more than adequately. They argue that teachers only teach for nine months meaning $30,800 is more like $41,000. What they fail to realize is that to sustain their energy over the course of decades, hard working teachers need to decompress for awhile afterwards. Also, the best teachers use portions of their summers to refine their curriculum and craft.

Also, as their pay lags their peers in the rest of the country, teacher quality in North Carolina will steadily decline. This will give those whose default is to denigrate teachers even more fodder. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay teachers less. Get weaker candidates. Criticize them more.

Somehow people who think of “x” and “y” supply and demand curves as biblical, don’t think improving teacher pay matters.

It takes 15 years to make $40,000. That statistic is depressing enough to turn the most ascetic of talented college graduates from the profession. Every other state legislature in the country should be studying North Carolina as a lesson in what not to do to attract and retain excellent teachers and families that value public education.

Most institutions of higher education understand the importance of investing in faculty excellence*. Consequently, they’re intentional about it, thus sabbatical programs, teaching loads that are about one half of public school teachers, and financial support for professional development. In contrast, it’s nonsensical that public school teachers are supposed to help the U.S. retain it’s precarious lead in the global economy, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, for $30,800 a year.

* Granted, I’m part of a dying breed, a tenured professor, if I was an adjunct, piecing together a living by driving to two, three, or four different universities every week (thus the moniker “freeway flyers”), without benefits, my perspective would obviously be less generous.

Teacher Merit Pay 2

The “conventional wisdom” problem I outlined in the last post is not the problem in my view. Children are not like cars or hamburgers. Some aspects of our public life, like health care and education, are too critical to our well being to allow for losing schools.

Drum roll. . . I will now concede a few points often communicated by conservative critics of public schools. Teacher unions will generate more good will if they work together with school boards, districts, and administrators to not only make sure all teachers are given due process when evaluated and conceivably terminated, but also to develop more rigorous criteria for continuing employment so that more (1% would be a large increase in some districts) consistently ineffective teachers are let go. Emphasizing due process almost exclusively has proven counter-productive.

Also, thanks to M.A. for turning me on to Atul Gawande, surgeon/genius health-care writer for the New Yorker. In the December 14th issue, in an article titled “Testing, Testing” he makes a very convincing argument that the best way forward in health-care, is for bottom-up, grass-root pilot studies of medical care, insurance, and related innovations.

Ed reformers would be well served to follow suit. Of course there’s a lot of innovative magnet, charter, and other public schools-within-schools, the challenge is scaling up what works in one context to another. But I digress. Even though schools are not car dealerships and restaurants, we need to free schools up to innovate and distinguish themselves one from another so that families can comparison shop. Families that consciously choose a school are far more committed to it.

To paraphrase from Deborah Meier, we need to provide families choices among small, distinctive, public schools.

The trend is the opposite, the pendulum has not only swung towards standardization in assessment, curriculum, and teaching methodologies, but it’s gotten stuck.

The record on charter schools is terribly uneven, some are exceptional, many are not. I’m not enough of an expert to know how to tip that balance, but my guess is greater fiscal and curricular accountability.

Back to “the problem”. Recent commenters, “Mom’s Favorite” and Lance (also a fantasy appellation), are both right. We need to find ways to attract especially strong candidates to the profession. What do I mean by “especially strong”? For starters, solid academic background, caring, and interpersonally skilled. And we want people motivated more by improving their communities than by enriching themselves.

Right now beginning teachers in Washington State make $34,237 and the scale tops out at $64,531 so we have a lot of room to increase pay without altering the tremendous altruism that motivates most teachers.

Until recently, I taught one course a year in an International Studies program that tended to attract especially strong students. Bi and trilingual, strong writers, confident discussants, serious international experience, ambitious, socially aware. The exact type of people I need applying to the teacher certification program I coordinate, but for the bulk of them, $34,237 is insufficient. After three years of law school they can triple it (leaving aside the fact that a lot of lawyers don’t like lawyering).

Stay tuned because the next question is whether merit pay (yes, I’ll get back to it) means dividing up the same $34,237-$64,531 pie differently or whether there are ways to increase the size of the pie, and as the cliche goes, have a rising tide lift all boats.