Members of the Texas Legislature are proposing a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for Texas teachers. The cost to taxpayers? $800 million per year. But apparently that isn’t enough for some.

In an e-mail to their membership on May 2, the Texas Federation of Teachers asked “Are you really ‘appreciative’ of getting shortchanged at the Capitol?”

I’m not sure an across-the-board, no-strings-attached pay raise of any kind can in truth be considered “short-changed.” After all, in most professions, folks do not get pay raises without first demonstrating the merit for it. All teachers have to do – good and bad alike – is exist to qualify.

And yet the unions and others are claiming they would reject the proposed increase if they don’t get one that is even bigger.

Legislators correctly say budget constraints won’t allow them to provide a higher across-the-board raise, and they’re certainly right. After all, elected officials must protect the economic well-being of all taxpayers, not just those employed by public schools.

However, most lawmakers and educators fail to recognize that right now there is plenty of money in our education system to pay teachers more – it’s just a matter of prioritization.

Based on per-student spending figures, more than $140,000 is allotted for the typical 20-student classroom in Texas. Unfortunately, less than 30% of that sum is applied toward the typical teacher’s salary. Considering that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, one would hope that a greater priority would be placed on teacher compensation.

Unfortunately, some not-so-recent trends have detrimentally suppressed teacher pay over the past several decades. Today, the average Texas teacher makes about $41,000. (Of course, the excellent teacher and the ineffective teacher make the same amount, but that’s another topic of discussion.) At the same time, the student-to-teacher ratio is 15-to-1, though most classrooms have far more than 15 students for a variety of reasons.

In 1969, the student-to-teacher ratio was 24-to-1. If schools merely had the same ratio today as they did 35 years ago, we could pay every Texas teacher $70,000 – without taking an extra dime from taxpayers.

A disturbing trend in public education is the increase of administrative personnel and salaries. While the number of teachers has grown by about 10 percent over the past five years, the number of support staff has grown 26 percent!

And while teacher salaries have increased by less than 9 percent over that same period, superintendent salaries have grown by 21 percent.

Imagine if some of those administrative dollars had been directed into the classroom and teacher salaries. If teacher salaries had merely increased by the same rate as overall school spending over the past ten years, the average Texas teacher would be making $48,000.

We must concentrate on reforming teacher pay. We need to pay our best teachers much more, and encourage our brightest professionals to enter the classroom.

It is a matter of effectively prioritizing education resources toward the classroom, and rewarding excellence. Across-the-board pay raises short-change the professional, academically-driven, hard-working teachers we want in the classroom.

Teachers and taxpayers shouldn’t be content with a mediocre pay raise with an expensive price tag. Instead, we should reestablish our priorities by putting teachers, not bureaucrats, at the front of the line.

By actively taking a stand for positive reforms that shift more dollars to the classroom and improve student outcomes, teachers and their spokespersons could serve as even better champions for both children and themselves.

Jamie Story is the education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research organization.