News : Counterpoint

Raise high the teachers

Texas public-school enrollment is to teacher salaries as Texas's geographic area is to ... Pennsylvania's! That's right: We rank second in enrollment, with more than 4.3 million students attending public schools, but our teacher salaries average $41,000 - six grand below the national average - and our annual expenditure per pupil hovers around $7,142, $1,500 less than the national average.

Texas's per-student spending, according to the NEA's Fall 2005 Rankings & Estimates Update, represents a one-percent decrease from the 2003-04 year, dropping us from 36 to 40 on the national report card. And our teachers haven't had a raise since 1999. Trust Texans to raise a collective middle finger to social and economic trends. As college admissions become more competitive and educational achievement becomes more starkly reflected in salaries and social mobility, we're taking a NIMBY approach to funding the only social stepping-stool available to most kids.

Opponents of increasing funding for public education argue that better teacher salaries won't buy better teachers. But I don't hear them making this argument for any other field. Do you hear calls to pay doctors less? Airline pilots? CEOs? While I think it is true that teachers choose their profession out of passion, many potential teachers are actually good at math, so they can figure out that a lot of other careers provide greater long-term financial opportunities with fewer standardized tests. And passion can't pay the mortgage.

At a recent SAISD board meeting, one of our high-school principals told me that, in his opinion, we have the financial incentives backward. The best teachers, he said, are lured or pushed out of the classroom to become teacher trainers - positions that pay more and are less arduous than working with students all day. In his experience, those teachers don't do as much good for students once they're out of the classroom and in the bureacracy. Shouldn't the financial incentives work the other way? he asked.

The old adage "you get what you pay for" is as true of education as it is of any other commodity. Morgan Quitno Press, publisher of state-ranking books, puts Texas at 24 in its Smart State list based on factors such as student achievement and personal attention from teachers. And while that grade represents a 9-place improvement over Texas's 2004-05 score, per-student expenditures weren't taken into account this year, and "24" is still middling - a "C" basically. Did your parents accept Cs? Mine sure didn't - but then, I grew up in Minnesota (Average teacher salary: $46, 906; number six in the Morgan Quitno Smart State register).

Considered from a factory-farm perspective (for all you "fiscal conservatives" out there), we're the second-largest producer of students in the nation, but we invest relatively little in our company, and consequently turn out a relatively mediocre product. Which makes us the Super Target of education. Personally, I like Super Target for casual clothes and toiletries, but I'm not going to buy my wedding dress there. Aren't our kids more like a wedding dress than a Juicy-Couture-knockoff sweatsuit?

Texas is not alone in its counterintuitive behavior. According to the NEA, the average teacher salary has risen a mere $10,000 over the past decade - not even enough to keep pace with inflation. For a state that prides itself on its maverick history (and a city that prides itself on its Maverick history), we've done little to distinguish ourselves in education. But now's our chance. The Ledge is in "extraordinary" session and the Republican leadership has promised that we can talk about fixing our schools as soon as we've dealt with the property-tax issue. Let's start the discussion with the single-most important resource in the classroom: the teachers.