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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The 70 percent solution

Here's a very well done post that takes a critical look at the claim, heard most recently in the Grand Forks school board race, that if the Legislature only would live up to its commitment to pay for 70 percent of public education in North Dakota, all would be well.

The post notes that state support of K-12 education has, in fact, increased since 1985, even when adjusted for inflation:

"In 1985 state support per student was $1,755. Adjusting this figure to 2005 dollars, it would amount to $3,107. Rather than merely keeping up with inflation the state spent $3,419, a real 10 percent increase in state support of education since 1985."

The post then notes that by comparison, the individual districts' support per student has gone up much more dramatically since '85. So, the reason why the state's share of the total level of support has fallen is not that the state cut back. It's that even though the state boosted spending per student, the local districts did so more aggressively. The net result is that yes, the state's share of overall public-education spending has fallen -- but attibuting this to the Legislature's "stinginess" doesn't tell the whole story.

Then the post makes the logical inference that setting a "hard target" of 70 percent figure would be poor public policy, because it would license districts to spend money so freely. After all, each district would know that for every dollar it spent, the state would spend a little more than two. Not a bad racket.

And read the comments after the post for a great back-and-forth on teachers' salaries. Question: If a school district has enough applicants to fill its teacher vacancies, why would it even consider raising salaries?

I can answer that question, to some extent. The main reason why a district might raise salaries above the "market rate" would be to attract more and better applicants, not just those who are minimally qualified. Lots of people would accept minimum wage for the job of playing pro basketball. So why do teams pay millions of dollars above that "market rate"? Because the real "market rate" that the team owners are looking at is the one that yields a winning, not just a functional, team. That bids up the salaries of basketball superstars, and so yields the situation we have today.

In my view, it's in the public's interest to pay salaries that attract, say, dozens of applications for teacher vacancies, rather than only four or five (as happens in many rural North Dakota school districts these days). In any event, using this "number of applications" benchmark certainly is a better measure of the appropriateness of teachers' salaries than is the comparison to teachers' salaries in other states. Better from the taxpayers' point of view, at least.

Speaking of teachers and salaries, here's a ripe and unexplored area for comment: The differing roles of the teachers' unions in North Dakota and Minnesota. In Minnesota, the labor laws and teachers' right to strike gives the unions great power; in North Dakota, a "right to work" state, that power is moderated considerably. Which is one reason why teachers in East Grand Forks, Minn., pop. 7,500, get paid more than teachers in Grand Forks, N.D., pop. 52,000, I understand (and if I'm wrong about this, teachers, please let me know). Readers, any thoughts on and/or other examples of this difference in union clout?


Blogger Therese Masters Jacobson said...


Here's a link to an article in today's Minnesota Daily regarding the state of MN's contribution per pupil to public education:

Minnesota public school teachers in general are higher paid than those in North Dakota. The median salary of the two states is higher in MN by $2285. See Salary Wizard at for comparisons of larger towns (EGF is not listed).

How sad that districts and towns must juggle finances, play games, and wrangle mischievously to increase support for education. In Minnesota, spending has been cut regularly over the past several years leaving school boards in towns like EGF in the lurch to compensate.
The ones who suffer are teachers whose positions are cut, or students who are crammed into larger classes.

Regarding unions' power, they still must negotiate with management. The "right to strike" does not mean teachers would automatically strike in certain situations to have their way like willful children. Striking is a leverage tool; working, however, is what it is all about and personally I consider the "right to work" a moral right covered by the "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That I found a teaching position in EGF is great. But for me, the teaching is compensation as much as the paycheck, because I love my job.

11:29 AM  
Blogger The Whistler said...

Dennis, thanks for the kind words about my post.

Your post said that you wondered if we wouldn't be better off offering a higher starting salary (and higher wages after that). Your reasoning was that we would get more applicants and better teachers.

Before we spend a lot more money we should know what we would expect for results.

1. North Dakota does very well in standardized tests. How could we tell if your plan improved the education system?

2. Are the best teachers motivated by more money, or by having students and parents that want to excel?

3. How exactly do we judge whether or not we are actually getting better teachers or just higher paid teachers? (During the hiring process)

4. Is there a way of studying historical data to see if more money for teachers actually helps. (Minnesota vs North Dakota. GF vs EGF, GF vs Larimore) My thinking is that there are so many variables it'd be really tough. Of course I am NOT going to take the unions word for it.

3:56 PM  

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