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GRAVES: Small classes, smaller salaries

In what may simultaneously be a personal record for delayed reaction and a remarkably pathetic example of failing to notice the forest for the trees, I was pondering something Gov. Daugaard said several years ago as he prudently dropped the budget ax on state spending, including dollars for K-12 education.

Proposing a 10 percent reduction in the per-pupil finance formula amount and eventually settling for something closer to 6.6 percent, the governor noted that education spending since the 1970s had dramatically increased, even adjusted for inflation, while student achievement had essentially remained unchanged.

I did not doubt then, nor do I doubt now, that this is true. What I failed to understand, but did not take the time to think through, was just how we could have spent so much more money on education while teacher salaries -- in truth all educational employee compensation levels -- remained unspectacular. In other words, if we spent a lot more on education, and if most of the money for schools goes to employee compensation, something like 80-85 percent by most calculations and indeed true for the Mitchell School District, then why didn’t teachers and other educators see large salary increases during that same time period? (That this is a “missing the forest for the trees” phenomenon is the case because I’ve watched education during this entire time period but never noticed the fiscal disconnect.)

Many educators point to one of the causes, the addition of special education (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA) as well as Title I remedial reading and math teachers over the course of the last 40-plus years. Prior to the 1970s, students now served by special education and Title I programming did not receive supplemental services, and in the former case were often even excluded from the public schools. Adding these teachers across the country added dramatically to national education spending, but because the extra dollars went to hiring more teachers rather than paying more to the positions already in existence, the result was not a huge increase in average teacher/educator compensation. (There was an increase, it should be noted, just not one to match the larger increases in education spending overall.)

The only problem with this explanation is that it is insufficient. Even if you remove all of the remedial education spending at the federal level, there is still an unaccounted for, much-larger-than-inflation, increase in education revenues. In fact, according to Federick Hess and Eric Osberg, two researchers on school finance and its relationship to school effectiveness, the number of teachers between the early 1970s and today has grown 50 percent faster than student enrollment during that same time. While some of this can be attributed to IDEA and Title I, much of it cannot. So what has the education establishment been doing with all of these extra teachers?

They have been brought into the profession, in a collaborative though sometimes unacknowledged effort by the federal and state governments, to reduce class size. Hess and Osberg note that if teacher:student ratios were the same today as they were back in the 1970s, we would require one million fewer teachers. Removing that many positions from the teaching roles would mean, theoretically at least, though also persuasively since the percentage of budgets devoted to employee compensation has remained relatively unchanged over the decades, dramatic increases in teacher/educator salaries. In other words, we’ve put our money behind smaller class sizes rather than teacher raises.

And, while few professional educators would tilt their lance against the windmill of small class size, the fact remains that the research provides little support for the idea that reducing class size increases student achievement. In our gut and in the gut of parents everywhere is the dearly held belief that smaller class size is better for students. Just, apparently, not better for the academic achievement of students.

Hence, we spend way more than we used to, student achievement remains stubbornly at pre-increased-spending levels, and teacher/educator compensation remains stubbornly at relatively low levels. That such a situation looks more and more like a crisis is due to the exacerbating factor of more professions opening up for the female labor force, which 40 years ago had many fewer occupations to choose from and so could be counted upon to enter the field of education in large numbers, much the way the Roman Catholic parochial school system could count on teaching sisters. In South Dakota, the problem is aggravated by competition from other states which pay significantly higher salaries (Minnesota, Iowa and more recently Wyoming and North Dakota), draining our teacher candidate pool during a time of shortage.

The most recent legislative session provided an extra $200-plus per student to assist with the problem, the dollars earmarked (unnecessarily, by the way, since the money pretty much automatically goes to salaries anyway) for teacher compensation. It is a start, and it is one method for meeting the goal of getting great people into classrooms. But it cannot be the only method. Unfortunately, in my profession, it is all too often the only method we are willing to recognize. Which is less analogous to missing the forest then it is to the easily spooked horse sentenced to wear blinders. One important difference does exist, however. The horse is forced to wear blinders. Ours are self-imposed.

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