APPEL: How To Evaluate John Bel Edwards’ Teacher Pay Raise Demands

As we in the legislature consider the potential of an increase in compensation for teachers and school support workers there are a lot of issues that must be considered. Politically speaking it is widely known that the governor owes a debt to the teacher unions and in light of his all-consuming focus on re-election it’s rather clear why he has suddenly recognized a pressing need to raise teacher pay. So let’s ignore rhetoric from the governor’s office and highlight a few major issues that impact a fairly evaluated position.

In order to grasp the situation its first important to address the numbers. There was a time not too long ago when based upon a cost of living adjustment our teachers were being paid at one of the highest levels in the South. That has changed and we have slipped down the pay rankings by state. That being said it also must be noted that our teachers’ benefit packages are very generous and must be factored into any discussion of teacher compensation.

To the point our total spending on K-12 education (state, local, Federal) is ranked close to highest in the South, around the middle of all states in the nation. We are not under-spending but perhaps it is not being spent appropriately.

An important fact to consider is that teachers and other school personal are not employees of the state. They are employees of the school districts and charter schools. Therefore teacher pay can only be set by local School Board action. Further at any time teacher pay could be increased simply by the school board calling for a local tax election.

One must ask why school boards have failed to raise teacher pay and in my opinion it falls squarely on two issues. First, as pragmatic politicians no school board member wants to be connected to a tax increase. Therefore it is far easier to blame the state for their local fiscal issues and then demand favorable support from Baton Rouge to find a source of funds for their teachers. Remember teachers are local school board employees, not state employees. In a good political structure their pay should be set AND funded locally but that would not be easy.

The second issue is that local funding of pay increases are dependent upon tax elections and most have failed at the polls. There are many reasons this is so but to me the main reason may well be that a skeptical public recognizes how much we spend and how little we get. A total lack of trust in the ability of school boards and school systems to perform is not a good formula for public support of a tax increase. Hence the teachers unions and their allies, the school boards, intuitively know that realistically their only chance for a pay increase is to by-pass voters and go straight to Baton Rouge.

Now let’s discuss the three hundred pound gorilla in the room. As noted our total spending on K-12 education is not particularly low, yet, our performance is abysmal. There are all sorts of excuses but most are predictable and they generally divert fault away from the school districts themselves. It’s the parents, it’s our culture, we are poor, it’s this, it’s that.

Well the simple fact is that we have a number of very poor but very successful schools so we know that given a good structure even our poorest kids can learn. We also know that many other states with similar demographics, states that spend far less than us, exhibit far superior outcomes. These two factors scream that we are not doing something right.

So one might ask the question – is low teacher pay the cause of our bad results? If that were true there could only be two main reasons; due to a lack of satisfaction with their pay our teachers are not really trying to do a good job or because of low pay we only have really unqualified teachers.

Based upon these two grounds just raising pay across the board should not be expected be a significant driver of improvement. For if we have poor quality teachers, paying them more will do nothing. If we have teachers who are not doing their job, then paying them more will not change a bad attitude.

Of course I suspect that there are other reasons that are causing our failure and not all of them have anything to do with teachers. For instance school governance at the local level could be our most pressing defect but that is irrelevant when discussing teacher compensation.

One of the most impactful problems that our districts face is the high cost of employee benefits. As we all know our districts are burdened by billions of dollars of unfunded accrued liabilities (UAL) and rapidly growing healthcare costs. The cost to amortize the UAL burden alone absorbs uncounted resources that could be more appropriately directed to the classroom. Under current law an increase in employee pay translates to a direct increase in benefits. That is a pay increase also causes a like increase in the amount that the employers, the school districts, will have to pay in benefit costs. How will benefit increases be funded?

A final consideration is the form in which the state would create such a pay increase. By law BESE creates a Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) resolution every year that, if approved by the Legislature, determines how much the districts will get. Whether such a resolution can be directed toward a pay raise has always been a subject of debate but on the assumption that it can be BESE would have to start the process and the legislature could only vote to accept or reject the resolution. The problem is that if a pay raise were to be ensconced in the MFP it would create a new baseline for future MFP spending. That baseline is fixed by law and if the state came upon bad times then nothing could be done to reduce the obligation to local districts. It is not good policy to lock in spending.

If we were to agree that the state should by-pass the local taxpayer and implement a state funded pay raise, what would be a logical approach? Well we know that we are having a serious problem attracting young people to join the teaching ranks. Specifically there was a time when large numbers of women bypassed other fields and undertook teaching as a vocation but those times have changed. Today women are entering the workforce in growing numbers but despite strong benefits and a short work year, higher pay in other fields and less difficult work environments are more attractive than teaching. Young people today have far better opportunities and teaching has diminished in attractiveness to them.

Addressing our shortfall in teachers can be accomplished by making a career decision in teaching more attractive for new teachers. In order to do so any pay increase should not be just across the board but instead should be weighted to attract more new teachers in general and especially more specialty teachers and those who are willing to work in impoverished urban and rural areas. This is not rocket science; it is the way the corporate job market has worked forever. The more demand for a given job classification, the higher the pay. Therefore a weighted pay increase based upon our areas of most need should well be in order.

Another issue to be considered is success. It is easy for politicians to just say we need a pay raise but as noted we are and have always been nearly dead last in educational outcomes. What would school boards and teacher unions bring to the state in exchange for higher pay? Do they offer for the first time acceptance and help with education reform efforts or should we expect just more of the same, a constant resistance to any efforts to change our broken system? Don’t we owe it to the citizens of Louisiana that we get their money worth by insisting that any pay increase be tied to measurable growth in outcomes?

In the past when there were funds available, the legislature has approved dedicated teacher pay increases outside of the MFP. These increases did not originate with BESE and they did not establish a new MFP baseline. Such funding is better government policy but the school boards and unions hate this approach as it creates a source of funds that is not locked in and theoretically could be reduced or eliminated.

These are some of the issues surrounding any pay increase decision by the legislature. It is a major decision because even without the costs of increasing benefits a pay raise could result in a recurring cost to the state of $50 to $100 million. As noted this cost if to the MFP is permanent and there is no future flexibility or demand for local districts to carry the load of funding their own schools.

So we have a lot of questions to answer. Does such a pay raise provide for a betterment of educational outcomes? I doubt that it would have any impact unless it was to be heavily targeted to attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession.

Should any pay raise be funded with state funds or should the local districts provide for the education for the kids that they represent? I believe that the state should supply some funds to equate to the foundational costs that arise from state mandates. These include the UAL, some testing costs, and so forth. That being said our current contribution of more than $3 billion annually should more than cover those items.

Should a pay increase be under the MFP or as a separate appropriation? I believe that tying the hands of state government is ALWAYS bad policy therefore I believe that this if we do this it should be a separate appropriation.

Is it right to divert state resources to pay local district employees when our own employees have had their pay frozen for years? A state funded teacher pay increase will only bring on what would be perhaps a justifiable, but astronomical, cost demand for pay increases for everyone.
There are so many more issues but it is far too early to be swept along by the emotional attraction to a pay raise.

Politically my hunch is that something will happen but without a doubt we as public servants must demand something for our people in return. That something must be a substantive improvement in educational outcomes. To pay more and get the same or even less makes no sense at all. To pay more and see positive results would be worth all the money we can find to fund it.

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