Economics, Student Accountability and Teacher Pay

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Is Rick Scott really our next education governor?

In his proposed 2013-’14 budget, Scott suggests that Florida classroom teachers receive an across-the-board $2,500 raise. He sent a letter to the chairman of the state Board of Education for presentation at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting outlining the plan, which would cost a hefty $480 million. The governor also recommended spending an additional $14 million for teachers’ classroom supplies.

It’s easy to be cynical about such announcements. Scott proved to be a virtual nemesis of rank-and-file teachers over the past two years, cutting the state’s education budget and supporting the elimination of teacher tenure. Political realities have set in, and he seems amazed people don’t love him for the job he’s doing. In the wake of fellow Republicans’ drubbing in the last election, Scott suddenly faces the prospect of a very tough re-election, likely against now-Democrat Charlie Crist.

So Scott’s about-face could be his attempt to woo voters, especially teachers, with a kinder, gentler side.

In his letter to the education board proposing pay increases, he said they would be a way “to strategically invest in statewide priorities that will encourage job creation for generations to come.” In other words, he’s justifying the raises on the same grounds that got him elected – an appeal to job creation. He also said in the letter that the state’s teachers earned the raise because of Florida’s improvement in one national review and rises in test scores and graduation rates.

Even assuming those results are sound, they owe no thanks to Scott’s policies, but never mind. I offer another reason for raising pay for all teachers: simple economics. Does anybody in our owned-by-the-Chamber-of-Commerce, free-enterprise-forever state legislature believe teachers are exempt from one of economics’ basic rules – that talented workers will follow higher pay? If we want to know why our public-education system fares poorly compared with other states, could it be our best teachers run to other states that pay more?

Here’s another reason to support higher pay for teachers. In its zeal to ferret out whom they believe to be lazy, indifferent or incompetent teachers, our legislators put the blame for poorly performing schools on the wrong side of the equation. It’s students who ought to be held accountable, as they were in the past.

When I attended public school, the common assumption was that if a kid brought home a bad grade, it was because he was lazy, indifferent or incompetent. The onus was on students to take personal responsibility – there’s a Republican phrase for you – for their educations. It was not the teacher at fault when a student brought home straight Ds. When did we start assuming the blame lay with a bad teacher?

But of course that is not the political mantra these days. Reports are that legislators are cool to Gov. Scott’s proposal for across-the-board pay increases because they favor instead – wait for it – merit increases. Never mind that teacher and school evaluations based on test scores are increasingly proving to be failed policy.

Scott in his letter touts teachers as “the cornerstone of educational success.” He’s right, of course, but who is listening? Not the tea party or even the legislative leadership. Not teachers themselves, after the way he treated them in the past.

The same political fear that drove Scott might actually get through to enough legislators to give Florida’s teachers boosts in pay and morale. But Rick Scott shouldn’t expect anyone who supports public education to tumble over themselves rushing to thank him.

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