This commentary originally appeared in the Waco Tribune on September 28, 2014.
Growing up in the small Texas town of Glen Rose, there were a few people who played an especially important role in shaping my life and character. The most important was, of course, my mom, who defined toughness and resilience when she decided to support my sisters and me by opening a flower shop on the downtown square — and running the whole thing herself.
A close second to her were my teachers. These men and women who labored for long hours with modest pay pushed my young mind in ways and directions that shaped me into the person I am today — and I will always be grateful for their efforts. If our lives are the work of many hands, then mine is very much the work of the extraordinary teachers in Glen Rose public schools.
Nearly every Texan has a similar story to tell of a teacher who took a special interest, opened new horizons and helped a young man or woman chart new paths in life. The best of them helped us understand ourselves and our world — and also refused to let us stay where we were within it. They were the only things better than pioneer spirits: they were the forgers of those spirits.
How, then, can Texas do right by teachers who have done so much good?
One answer is simple, direct and obvious: implement full school choice. There is plenty of evidence that teachers will do more than survive in such a system. They’d thrive and have better pay and working conditions. A recent report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation called “Teachers Win: A Case for School Choice” (texaspolicy.com) sets forth the case in detail.
Why would school choice benefit teachers? Unlike professional pay in the private sector, there is little competition for the services of teachers. Districts employ over 90 percent of Texas teachers. This means districts get to decide how much teachers will be paid. In Waco, they’ve decided that the average teacher is worth $46,306.
This system doesn’t satisfy Texans. In a recent Texas Tribune/UT Austin poll, 67 percent of Texans believe increasing teacher pay would improve education. So why not just flip a switch in Austin and guarantee every teacher a raise? Answer: Because some teachers deserve greater recognition than others. Teachers themselves say this.
A Public Agenda survey interviewed teachers nationwide and found that just under 70 percent of teachers think their colleagues who work harder or put in more hours at work should be given a special financial incentive. One teacher replied: “A person like me, I don’t want it. Let her have that extra $10,000. I’ll take the easy class. But you’d have plenty of people like her that want the extra money and are willing to take a hard class.”
As with other professions, if there were more competition for their services, teacher pay would be set by the market, not politicians. One A&M economist who researched the issue found school choice would result in 88 percent of teachers receiving higher pay.
If a state administrator sets a teacher’s salary, he has to be cautious to make the result fair. To see what pay a teacher deserves in 2015, the teacher’s performance in 2014 needs to be measured. But it’s not enough to measure one year. Statistical trends must be set to ensure a specific teacher is the reason student performance is improving.
This caution tries to ensure fairness but is demoralizing. Imagine you put in extra hours at work but weren’t recognized for years. Great teachers are obvious to their peers. Parents should be encouraged to find and support them. Teachers deserve recognition as soon as the people closest to them see it.
This is something the current system can never do. The teachers of Glen Rose, who shaped my life — and those who now shape our children’s lives — deserve no less.
Brooke Rollins is president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.