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SPOTLIGHT
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Solving the Kansas teacher shortage

Published on -9/27/2013, 10:04 AM

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When you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging.

That adage came to mind as I recently read of a looming teacher shortage.

Scott Myers, head of the state's teacher licensing division recently said low teacher salaries are a problem, and he's right.

Myers said, "I think they need to be paid as a true profession, and treated as a true profession, and all the things that go along with that."

Unfortunately, there are a number of state laws and practices that treat teachers like interchangeable widgets instead of true professionals.

Professionals are paid according to the value they bring to an organization. Kansas teachers are paid based on length of service instead of their ability to positively impact the lives of students.

With few exceptions, an effective teacher hired the same year as an ineffective teacher is paid the same base salary within a district. That's why the highest paid teachers in some school districts teach subjects such as physical education ($98,613 in Wichita) or speech/drama ($105,354 in Blue Valley).

Teachers who stay in one district for a long time make the most money. (These pay levels include supplemental pay, but then many teachers earn various forms of supplemental pay; school district pay listings are available at KansasOpenGov.org.)

It's not that physical education or speech/drama aren't worthy subjects, it's that there is no relationship to what teachers are paid and the relative value they provide to students. That can only be accomplished by paying teachers on an individual basis where merit is rewarded instead of paying teachers largely based on how long they've been in the position.

Districts routinely pay custodians, secretaries, painters and locksmiths more than they pay many of their teachers. These are conscious choices made by district administrators and at least tacitly endorsed by local school board members.

School districts have also chosen to spend a lot more money on administrators and other non-teaching staff. Data provided by the Kansas Department of Education shows that school districts had 16 percent more teachers in 2013 than in 1993 but non-teaching positions jumped by 40 percent; enrollment only increased by 6 percent. Kansas teachers could be paid $10,125 more if non-teaching positions had only kept pace with enrollment between 1992 and 2006, according to a 2012 study from Benjamin Scafidi and the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice.

Another way of increasing the teacher pool in Kansas is to empower local school boards and superintendents to decide who is qualified to teach. Bill Gates is qualified to teach computer science at the University of Kansas, but not at Hays High School -- because state law requires elementary and secondary teachers to have an education certificate. Not everyone will be a great teacher but local leaders should be able to determine if Bill Gates, or a retired Fort Hays State University professor, could teach a computer science course -- as opposed to preventing them from even submitting a valid application.

A large body of research shows that nothing has a greater impact on students that putting an effective teacher in front of them. Kansans can put more effective teachers in the classroom and allow them to be paid more.

All it takes is the courage to stand up to the opposition and do what's best for students and individual teachers.

Dave Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute.

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