Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fire! Get the money!

[Guest post by Greg Forster]

University of Oklahoma President David Boren wants voters to hike the state sales tax to fund a slate of goodies for educators, with the bulk of the proceeds going to an across-the-board $5,000 raise for all teachers. Such a measure is extremely unlikely to have a positive effect on school outcomes. Even the smaller portion of boodle that will supposedly go to “incentive pay” schemes is an almost certain loser.

The whole boondoggle reminds me of a 30-second video, entitled “Get the Money!”, produced by entrepreneur Jean-Marc Le Doux during the 2008 crisis to satirize equally loopy bailout schemes. In the video, the tranquility of a placid suburban home is shattered when the occupants discover that an electrical outlet is on fire. “Fire! Get the money!” shrieks the wife. The couple barrels into the room clutching two big buckets full of money, which they proceed to throw at the fire in a futile effort to extinguish it.

Educational mediocrity is indeed as urgent as an electrical fire in our national living room, so a sense of urgency is appreciated. But throwing even more money at the same old broken system is no more likely to improve its outcomes than throwing money at an outlet is likely to put out the fire. Indeed, after two or three generations of Boren’s “Get the Money!” solution, we have now wasted so much precious time that the educational fire has already burned down the living room and spread to the kitchen (economic stagnation), the bedroom (breakdown of the family), and the guest room (intergenerational poverty).

Boren’s scheme would raise $615 million a year, of which $378 million would fund a $5,000 raise for all teachers. By comparison, a piddling $50 million would go to “locally controlled reforms like incentive pay,” in the words of The Oklahoman. “Another $125 million would go to higher education to keep down tuition and fees,” because throwing more subsidies at colleges has such a great track record of lowering tuition and fees (in fact, colleges always respond by raising tuition and fees, for reasons that are obvious to anyone with either a working knowledge of economics or an ounce of common sense). Boodle would also be doled out to early childhood programs, which consistently fail to improve later educational outcomes, and vocational education.

The $5,000 teacher raise would be indiscriminate, offered to all teachers—effective and ineffective alike. There is therefore no particular reason to expect it will improve educational results. It will help attract and retain good teachers, and also bad ones. Boren is putting no more thought into his solution than those shrieking homeowners in the video.

If it were true, as is so often claimed, that teachers in general are severely "underpaid," there might be some grounds to expect that this “underpayment” was driving better teachers away from the profession, and a raise would restore balance. But even if this were true, it would still be wiser to concentrate the money on reforms that target higher performance. Why not a $10,000 bonus for all teachers at the 50 percent of schools that improve their graduation rate most in the coming year? Even better, why not start by identifying the 50 percent of schools with the lowest graduation rates and then offer a $20,000 bonus to all teachers at the 50 percent of those schools that improve graduation rates the most? Or use the money to strike a bargain with the education establishment—bribe them to accept a universal ESA program?

In fact, however, teachers are not underpaid. Few of the people making this claim have even thought about what “underpaid” means. Teachers make less than brain surgeons, yet no one thinks this makes teachers underpaid; ditch diggers make less than teachers, yet no one thinks this makes ditch diggers underpaid. Professions make different amounts based largely on the entry requirements of the profession, and U.S. Department of Labor data have consistently shown—for years!—that teachers make about the same as other professions with similar entry requirements. If you consider that their benefits packages tend to be more generous than average, while they make comparable pay, they are if anything overpaid (as a result of their past political strength, which allowed the unions to manipulate the market in their favor).

How about those “locally controlled reforms like incentive pay”? It’s not clear what “incentive pay” means, but one thing is clear. If the reforms really are locally controlled, the chances that they will include meaningful merit pay are approximately zero. One of the most severe systemic problems in our education system is the colonization of local school boards and other school governance structures by the school unions. The inmates run the local asylum. (This problem is one reason some education reformers have foolishly turned to increased state and federal power over schools, in a vain attempt to strongarm school districts into reforming.)

Even if the reforms did include merit pay, they’d be unlikely to work. Merit pay programs for teachers have a dismal record. The measurements of teacher “merit” never seem to align with actual teacher merit. (Hence in my example above I used graduation rates as the measurement we could reward teachers for improving, if we must choose some measurement—we do know how to calculate that reasonably well, and it’s not even all that tough to catch schools when they lie about their graduation rates.) Even more discouragingly, the teachers themselves generally have no confidence in the measurements even when they’re good ones; the teachers ignore the merit pay programs because they don’t expect the programs to reward merit.

All this is a distraction from the real issue, and in two senses. On the one hand, Boren is offering to throw more money at our educational house fire primarily because the scheme includes money for him (“to keep down tuition and fees”) and to his school-union allies (OU has a college of education, which makes OU part of the K-12 education blob). All his rhetoric is meant to misdirect us from what is, at bottom, a cynical power play to grab cash. On the other hand, talking about funding levels is a distraction in a more substantive sense. The more money we throw at the house fire, the longer it takes us to come to our senses and pick up the bucket of water labeled “school choice.” 

[Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014). He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

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