Good Money After Bad? More Money Proposed for Education

As the statewide referendum showed us last month, Utahns feel very passionately about education despite the varied ways in which we all want to improve it. One solution is as old as the education system itself: spend more money. Certainly there has to be an appropriate level of financing for our education system to succeed, but I'm left wondering if we're spending our money as wisely as we could.

It's been oft-cited that Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. What often gets left out, however, is that education spending as a percentage of gross state product puts us in the middle of the pack at 24th place. Given our state's high test scores and graduation rates, we seem to be spending at least the baseline required to get the job done right. The question, then, is why it is that teacher compensation remains so low.

A big part of it has to do with the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality that's gripped so many other states. They're all in bidding wars to see who can outspend who to attract better teachers and lots of them. We do have to participate in it to some degree, but this deflects the blame from the real culprits of low teacher compensation: school administrators and teachers unions.

Hear me out before you decide to pillory me. I've often pointed out that we've doubled inflation-adjusted education spending since 1970. I've also pointed out that inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have stayed flat during that time. It doesn't take a lot of mental power to realize that the teachers' unions have either done a lousy job of negotiating increased teacher pay or the money hasn't been making it to teachers' pockets. In either case, I'd think teachers would be rather upset at their unions for failing in their primary responsibility to negotiate compensation.

School administrators deserve plenty of flak as well. After all, they're the ones making up budgets and deciding how to spend those tax dollars. Where's all that money going? It seems that every district is loaded with tons of support personnel, a symptom of mission creep perpetuated by federal mandates, state legislatures and enterprising district officials looking for job security. Instead of asking teachers how they can help them do their jobs better, we foist new onerous requirements upon them that soak up instructional time and contribute to fatigue and apathy.

Our legislators, while well-intentioned, have decided to address the teacher compensation problem in a way that treats a symptom rather than a cause. While the direct appropriation of money to teachers in the 2007 session proved very popular, it did nothing to encourage the districts to shed excess the layers of administration and "support staff" that are little more than a drain on district resources. (It's rather telling that districts botched the counts the first time around and decided to include a questionable number of employees as "teachers".) With the 2008 session almost upon us, the same solution has been brought up yet again.

Gov. Huntsman has made the proposal even worse by suggesting that the increase be a direct appropriation to the very districts that have been causing the problems. Who's to say that it won't be funneled into union coffers like it did in Nevada in 2003? How do we know the school districts won't continue their track records of not letting the money trickle down to teachers and classrooms? It's an awfully big check to cut for the collective lack of oversight demonstrated over the last several decades.

Given our current political climate, it would be a dangerous thing for any legislator to be asking these kinds of questions lest they be successfully labeled as anti-education. School districts make unpopular and highly visible cuts to programs like music and arts to cultivate the impression that they're operating on a bare-bones budget. Unions seem to be bent on keeping teacher compensation lackluster at best in order to continue to beat on the "more money" drum. It seems that despite the evidence to the contrary, we're going to be railroaded into forking out more "no strings attached" money this legislative session.

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8 Responses

  1. HAL says:

    How do you account for the fact that Utah has the lowest public school administrative costs in the nation. In fact, the next lowest to Utah is 50% higher than we are. The data dosen’t support your article.

  2. David says:

    While cutting popular programs and failing to raise teacher salaries with their ever increasing budgets the board members manage to vote to double or triple their own salaries.

  3. Jesse says:

    Funny, David, I was just thinking that.

  4. I disagree with your premise that there is a “keeping up the Joneses” mentality regarding teacher compensation. If you have ever met someone who tries to live on a teacher’s salary, you will find that they barely survive. It’s keeping just above poverty level, in reality. And don’t give the excuse that benefits make up for low salaries, because benefits don’t put food on the table or pay for shelter. A few teacher friends of mine live three to an apartment in Cottonwood Heights to teach in Riverton (because that was the cheapest place to live). Tack on student loans and other education costs, which despite well-meaning incentives to encourage new teachers, don’t make up.
    I agree with Hal that the administrative cost argument is nearly a non-starter in Utah, as statistically proven. I am not saying that we need to ignore administrative abuse, duplication, and red tape, but it is not as big a problem in Utah as it is nationally.
    Your worry about a Nevada situation was moot over the past few years, when the Legislature implemented paycheck protection. However, since that was overturned earlier this year, it could happen, but I find that a fallacious argument to began with because Utah is a right-to-work state, and people are free to sign up or drop off from automatic political contributions according to their own free will.

  5. Jesse says:

    Perhaps my intent wasn’t clear. I’m saying that increased education spending is a case of “keeping up with the Joneses”, not teacher compensation specifically.

  6. Reach Upward says:

    I don’t buy the argument that we don’t have a problem with administrative overhead. It doesn’t matter how we rate on administrative expense in comparison to other states. It only matters if we’re getting our money’s worth. With (real) teacher salaries flat over the past four decades, the increase in real dollars spent per pupil on education has got to be going somewhere else. Can we honestly say that we have improved education during the time of this twice-the-rate-of-inflation increase? If all of that additional administrative expense isn’t buying us better education, then there is no argument for maintaining it, even if other states do so.

  7. Tim says:

    Two things the legislature could do to help here:

    1) Instead of continuing this confusing direct pay for teacher increases, they should put the money into the WPU then set a minimum statewide teacher salary. If they add 7 percent to teacher pay, simply add 7 percent to the lowest salary in the state as a requirement. Each year thereafter, the minimum increases by a (large) portion of what is added to the WPU. That way, salaries would have to increase and all the people grabbing money from the WPU increases would lose their power.

    2) You are correct to say that we spend too much money on admin. What you left out is the real reason. Public ed has grown to complicated and convoluted. Cut the outdated regulations and stop the mission creep. Every time we place another regulation or requirement on schools, somebody has to “oversee” that. We need to clear the plate and FOCUS on straight forward academics. I know there is wasteful admin. I have seen some of it but it is masked by all the REQUIRED crap schools are doing. Get rid of that extra-academic stuff then we can clearly see the waste and eliminate it.

  8. RC says:

    Thanks Jesse, and Tim and others. Good thoughts. Keep ’em coming.

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