As legislators and their paid consultants struggle with how to answer the State Supreme Court’s latest education-funding question about determining “competitive market rates” for educators, a couple of thoughts press themselves to the fore as the drama moves toward a final act.
First, there’s an unfortunate sense that, in the press by the justices to make it clear to legislators which branch of government is ultimately in charge, what’s emerged is an effort to ensure that financial support of educators becomes the answer to education quality woes. No consideration is given to support for education in a broader sense.
Second, the well-worn phrase “You can’t just throw money at a problem” is one that seems to have eluded the state high court in its on-going education-funding struggle with the legislature over how much is enough.
At issue is the court’s January 2012 ruling, in what is now known as the McCleary case, that the legislature violated the state constitution by failing to amply fund basic education. Since then the court has found the lawmakers in contempt for not providing sufficient funding and has even threatened to take over the budgeting process (presenting what would seem to an amazing cartoonists’ opportunity).
Now the court has told the lawmakers to determine “competitive market rates” in terms of teacher salaries across the state and a final report on that point is due from a legislative consultant in November.
After that, lawmakers will try to find common ground on the sum of money required for salaries and where it is going to come from. The Legislature is supposed to take votes in 2017, or in the view of lawmakers in 2018, to put those final pieces in place in what has come to be known as the McCleary case.
Comes now the observation of Donald Nielsen, whom I best describe as an education “change agent,” whose views are dramatically suspect and irritating to those who disagree with him because he has no hidden agenda. He’s merely a business executive who made his fortune and decided nearly a quarter century ago to spend his time and money in the next phase of life seeking to make basic education better.
Nielsen is not an educator. But he is someone who is passionate about public education and has focused much of his attention on it since the early ‘90s, first traveling the country in search of education ideas that are working, then serving eight years on the Seattle School Board and a final year as president. His book, “Every School,” has brought his thoughts on education reform to the fore over the past couple of years in radio talk shows and newspaper interviews around the country.
“Schools do not have a funding problem, they have a regulatory problem,” Nielsen suggests. “If school administrators could spend their existing money as they believe is needed, they would spend it quite differently, and we would get better results.”
His most in-your-face message is that “teachers are not underpaid, they are underemployed. This is not a compensation issue, it’s an employment issues.”
“The average teacher in Seattle, in 2013, was making $70,000 a year, employed for 1320 hours,” he said. “All normal jobs employ people for 2080 hours a year so If that same teacher were employed for a normal year, his or her compensation would $110,300 a year on that 2080 basis.”
“Even beginning teachers who start at $40,000 a year are being paid the equivalent of $63,000 year,” he added. “In both cases, the teacher gets a benefit package that no private employer could afford to replicate.”
Neither of these compensations is low,” Nielsen added. “They are very competitive, and in rural areas, teachers are already among the best paid people in the community.”
Discussion by the justices has never touched on suggesting the lawmakers focus on how the money is being spent, only how much is being spent, which makes another suggestion from Nielsen the kind of thing that at least might be in the discussion hopper.
“We need are variable contracts for teachers: A nine month contract, a ten month contract and an eleven month contract, meaning the latter would make the $110,000 and the former would make the $70,000,” he said. “Let the teachers decide what contract they want and let the district decide who gets each type of contract,” suggesting that approach could allow for some education options for different students.
Unfortunately, it’s still uncertain whether the final act in this drama will be played out on the judicial or legislative stages since the nine justices of the state’s highest court have pressed the lawmakers, including with a contempt funding, to spend more dollars on education. At issue is the state’s constitutional mandate for adequate funding of basic education.
The justices, as far as I can tell, have never mentioned that lawmakers should also consider how the education dollars are being spent and could better education result from more insightful use of the dollars the lawmakers appropriate.
Maybe there’s still time, as the lines for the final act are just now being written in Olympia, for the idea of quality of expenditure rather than just quantity of expenditure to be raised.
In a case replete with issues relating to powerful education forces focused only on dollars, it might be worth combatants who finally seem hopeful of averting a real constitutional crisis to be aware of an unsettling statistic that Nielsen has included in his book.
In summing up the details of the chart in his book, Nielsen notes: “We now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970 and we also have four times as many adults in our schools with only eight percent more children. And we’ve had no measurable improvement in academic achievement.”
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