In my last post I noted that whenever I cite articles questioning connections between education spending, class size or teacher pay and education results, I invariably receive comments along the lines of “well, not in Utah.”
Yup, Utah has some of the largest class sizes in the country. (In fact, according to one analysis I’m going to cite, Utah ranks at the very top – or bottom – in number of enrolled students per teacher: 22.3). According to the same report, published in The Atlantic, Utah ranks fourth from the bottom in teacher salaries. On the other hand, Utah ranks in the upper half on 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading scores.
By the way, another website, the “Teacher Portal” ranks teacher pay by “salary comfort index,” which also takes into account cost of living. This site gives Utah a rank of 39 – still hardly impressive, but a little higher.
Many, maybe most, of my blog readers would reply that Utah, duh, needs to increase salaries AND reduce class sizes. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but the premise of this and the posts that will follow is that we’re probably going to have to choose.
Here’s a piece of data that isn’t cited as often in accounts of Utah’s low education spending. From the Tax Foundation, which tracks tax burden by state:
Utah’s state and local tax burden is currently estimated at 9.7% of income (20th nationally), just below the national average of 9.8%. Compared to the 1977 data, Utah had a tax burden of 10.2% (22nd nationally), decreasing 0.4% overall. Currently Utah taxpayers pay $3,349 per capita in state and local taxes.
So here’s the reality. Utah voters regularly elect Republican legislators committed to controlling spending. Utah residents produce a lot of kids, whose parents want good schools but also face a lot of claims on their (often single) paycheck. Utah’s economy is faring much better than most states’, in part because it’s attracting high tech businesses from states like California that have failed to control spending and imposed much heavier tax burdens on their residents. These new businesses will bring new tax revenue and new, education-conscious parents.
So far I’m pretty much repeating my last post, with more data. Now let me cut to the (promised) chase. If Utah has some leeway to spend more money on education, but not a lot of leeway, where should those dollars go?
My first answer is that the state should focus on raising teacher salaries instead of on reducing class sizes.
Neither raising teacher salaries nor reducing class sizes clearly improves educational outcomes (except maybe, for lower class sizes, in grades 1-4, and even that is disputed by dueling studies.) Most states, however, have chosen to reduce class sizes and let teacher salaries stagnate. As the National Center for Education Statistics reports:
For public schools, the number of pupils per teacher—that is, the pupil/teacher ratio—declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985. After 1985, the public school pupil/teacher ratio continued to decline, reaching 17.2 in 1989. After a period of relative stability during the late 1980s through.the mid-1990s, the ratio declined from 17.3 in 1995 to 16.0 in 2000. Decreases have continued since then, and the public school pupil/teacher ratio was 15.3 in 2008.
The average salary for public school teachers in 2009–10 was $55,350, about 3 percent higher than in 1990–91, after adjustment for inflation. The salaries of public school teachers have generally maintained pace with inflation since 1990–91.
In other words, states have chosen smaller class sizes over better-paid teachers. Why do I think Utah should make a different choice?
My answer is, first, to get teachers on board with other educational reforms that may do more to improve Utah education, and to signal – strongly – that the state recognizes that teachers must lead change.
I get a little frustrated with the constant chorus of “it’s the students’ fault,” or “it’s the parents’ fault.” that kids aren’t learning more. While that’s true enough, and while there are probably some changes we can make to improve parent involvement and student commitment, for the most part good parenting is outside the control of legislators and school administrators. Still, I sympathize with teachers who argue that they take all the blame for educational failure. Raising teacher salaries would boost morale; tying higher teacher salaries to better teacher evaluation systems might win support for the latter.
I also think that higher salaries would help reconcile teachers to higher standards for entering the profession.
I’ll return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts.