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EDITORIAL: To attract better teachers to low-performing schools, reform union pay structure

State education officials raised concerns last week about disparities in teacher quality between Clark County schools in affluent and low-income areas. And, once again, the problem can be traced to the one-size-fits-all socialized pay structure that has long dominated teacher compensation thanks to union politics.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that experienced teachers prefer to use their seniority to secure work in the most comfortable surroundings. In many cases, that relegates new educators to campuses in poorer areas. As a result, schools in wealthier neighborhoods, according to a report presented to the state Board of Education last week, tend to spend more on teacher pay, exacerbating funding gaps.

“We’re funding schools that are serving at-risk students at possibly a much lower level than we’re funding schools in the affluent areas,” board Vice President Mark Newburn said, “and it’s all invisible. We can’t see it.”

Yet schools in so-called “at-risk” areas are eligible for a variety of programs that offer additional money in an effort to improve student performance. Most of those financial resources are not available to suburban campuses. In addition, let’s not confuse experience with quality. In general, higher-paid veterans may indeed be more of an asset in the classroom than fresh-faced rookies at the bottom of the pay scale. But in some cases, that won’t be the case.

In response to the report, Steve Canavero, Nevada’s state superintendent, adjusted his bureaucrat beanie and recommended forming a committee to study the matter. But this issue is not new. Nor is the framework for a solution elusive: Acknowledge and harness market forces.

This should not be controversial — even national teacher unions acknowledge the issue. Way back in 2002, Cynthia D. Price, then the issues analysis director of the American Association of School Administrators, identified the problem. “Given the current compensation structure — in which all teachers in a district are working their way up the same ladder — why would a teacher choose to work in a low-performing school?” she wrote. “It is a clear example of equal pay for unequal work.”

Ms. Price continued: “The problem with the traditional single-salary schedule, economists contend, is that if all teachers in a district are compensated at the same level without regard to differences in amenities or the difficulty of the task, they will naturally tend to gravitate to jobs with less stress, fewer demands and more desirable working conditions.”

To address that reality, Ms. Price quotes economist Michael Podgursky, who argued, “If districts wish to equalize quality, they will need to disequalize pay.”

The danger is that education unions will no doubt see this as an opening for a raft of new teacher “incentive” pools — housing aid, student loan forgiveness, etc. — courtesy of the taxpayers. The challenge will be to accomplish the objectives largely within the current financial framework.

Lawmakers in 2015 mandated that the Clark County School District implement reforms designed to give principals more autonomy in hiring and budgeting. That could help schools in low-income locales attract better talent. In the end, however, the current teacher compensation system remains the greatest obstacle to ensuring that quality educators aren’t clustered in the district’s wealthier areas. Any strategies offered by Mr. Canavero’s “working group” that don’t address this fundamental reality will be an exercise in futility.

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