The argument used to justify granting pay raises for Louisiana teachers as well as making it easier for some retired teachers to double-dip, a shortage, statistics shows is at best specious.
The just-concluded regular session of the Louisiana Legislature featured a number of bills to combat the presumed shortage. Principally, a $1,500 average pay raise went to educators in the public schools, and a new law allows rehiring of former teachers where there exists a “critical shortage,” with some able to keep their entire pensions paying out during their temporary contracts.
Lawmaker after lawmaker emphasized these items addressed a situation where too few teachers chased too many students, requiring too many substitutes or teaching not in areas of certification. Some, along with Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, wanted $500 more thrown in, all to ameliorate the presumed shortage.
Yet national statistics don’t bear out this argument. Despite claims of teacher shortages, more teachers are teaching fewer students nationwide. The number of teachers in the U.S. has increased from 2013 to 2020 while the number of students has decreased, and this from data from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public-school union that consistently has advocated for higher teacher salaries.
By and large, Louisiana has tracked fairly similarly. Over the 2014-20 period, student headcount in public schools decreased around 34,000 while the number of teachers increased about 1,500. This means the average number of students per teacher fell from just under 15 to just over 14 in this span.
Further, in this time teacher salaries crept upwards, with the average (including extra pay for all positions) going from $49,260 a year to $51,779, or an increase of 5.1 percent. While this didn’t keep up with inflation, which nearly doubled in rate at 9.7 percent, this outpaced by almost doubled the state average for all workers where wages increased only 2.8 percent. (Although one could argue for the recent raise by observing under rule by Democrats in Washington the annualized inflation rate has gone up almost as much over the past year as teachers’ salaries had increased over that 2014-20 period.)
Certainly, some areas such as science and mathematics, foreign languages, and special education chronically face shortfalls and for these it can be difficult to procure uncertified instructors in those areas without an inducement of higher pay. But differing average pay levels across local education agencies have little to do with student performance, statistics show, while something that does better, merit pay that would address more precisely scarcity in subject areas, Louisiana doesn’t do well.
In the 2020-21 school year, affected by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, almost 10,000 students exited the system along with over 4,000 teachers. This presented an opportunity to reconfigure Louisiana’s teacher accountability system, which does decently in weeding out poor teachers but poorly in assigning pay by performance, by increasing emphasis on merit pay and filling the difficult subjects with higher salaries. The across-the-board approach wasted this opportunity while creating an ongoing commitment the state will have difficulty in fulfilling starting in a couple of years.
Proponents of this approach like the NEA and other supporters of the Soviet one-size-fits-all model that relies heavily on government schools with captive attendees often have squawked about how Louisiana hasn’t kept up with its southern state peers in teacher salaries that presumably attract more to the profession. But with almost no exception these other states have growing student populations. It’s time for Louisiana to learn to educate smarter with taxpayer dollars rather than to throw more of these indiscriminately into a system that has some of the worst outcomes in the country.
Jeff Sadow can be reached at jeffsadowcolumn-HannaPub@yahoo.com.