Waste in public education

A scandal! Arlington, Virginia, is paying its starting schoolteachers amost a third of what the top law firms pay their starting associates.

Volokh Conspirator David Bernstein has discovered a shocking instance of waste in the Arlington, VA public school system. Instead of using the money for education, they’re using it to pay the teachers: a whopping $45,000 for teachers with a master’s degree.

Bernstein is shocked: “New teachers with a bachelor’s degree for example, will make over forty thousand dollars, making it probably the best job available to English and history majors in the D.C. area.” (I don’t know how the private sector pays around the D.C. area, but in fact Arlington starts its police officers, who need only two years of college, at $39,000, which is much better than a teacher’s salary if you adjust for the public safety retirement benefits.)

Questions for Bernstein: Why wouldn’t you want your kids taught by the best? Why shouldn’t teaching be the most attractive, most competitive, most demanding career available? Is there some other social function more important than transmitting the culture to the next generation? Isn’t it obvious that the world would be a better place if the smartest college graduates went into schoolteaching, and only the losers became tax lawyers?

Chester Finn, the sharpest knife in the conservative education-reform drawer, made exactly the opposite suggestion in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week. He points out that if the growth in spending per student since 1970 had come in the form of higher salaries for teachers rather than hiring more teachers — i.e., if we had today’s teacher-salary budgets but 1970’s faculty-student ratios — we’d be starting teachers at $100,000 per year, and argues that a salary increase of that sort is exactly what is needed to upgrade the teaching workforce, now drawing increasingly from the bottom of the college-graduate talent pool.

Now Finn’s proposal isn’t really numerically realistic (any more than Bernstein’s $17,000 per student is a meaningful number): much of the growth in teachers per student, and in cost, has come in the form of special education teachers. A typical urban district spends about a third of its budget on the roughly five percent of its students designated “special needs,” and that fact is mostly dictated by national-level policies not under the control of the school department.

But a 50% raise for classroom teachers and a 50% increase in their wages isn’t an unreasonable proposal. (Or we could skip the class size increase and just spend the damned money.)

Of course Bernstein is right that it’s possible to spend the money and not get better quality. Perhaps Arlington is doing so. But Ron Ferguson has consistently found that paying more, other things equal, buys better teachers as measured by the teachers’ own reading scores, and that better teachers so measured lead to better scores for the students. Higher salaries, if used inteligently, should allow a district to be more selective. Higher salaries across the board, and tougher hiring standards to go with them, might reverse the disastrous decline in the prestige of schoolteaching as a profession.

But as long as folks such as Bernstein are horrified at the thought that a teacher might draw close to a third of a what a first-year associate at a top law firm draws, we’re condemned to have (mostly) teachers who aren’t worth much more than they get.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com