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Drain Education Reform Money, Lay Off Teachers, or Pay Them Less? An Ugly Choice.

The fate of the $10 billion edujobs bill, which is meant to prevent more than 100,000 teacher layoffs across the country, remains unclear. Before Congress went on vacation earlier this month, the House passed edujobs as an amendment to a larger spending bill and sent it to the Senate. But, as I wrote at the time, the House agreed to pay for the provision in part by cutting funds from some of Obama’s most vital education reform initiatives, including Race to the Top. The president threatened a veto, and the Department of Education immediately embarked on a push to find the money elsewhere. On Thursday morning, in a conference call with reporters, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes said, “We don't have to make a choice between reform and making sure that teachers will stay in the classroom.”

 She’s right. And one obvious alternative would be for teachers to absorb some financial hit themselves. This would minimize the amount of money Congress would need to shell out—and, hopefully, quell the political battle that edujobs has stirred up.

This is already happening in some places. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in June that he would freeze teachers’ wages for the next two years—and thus preserve 4,400 jobs. Los Angeles initially planned to lay off 3,100 teachers but has slashed 2,445 pink slips, largely by reaching an agreement with the local teachers’ union to take several furlough days over the next two years. But, elsewhere, unions have refused to make similar concessions: In Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, and Flint, Michigan, among other places, unions have rejected proposals for cuts or freezes to teachers’ salaries and benefits, citing contracts guaranteeing that earnings escalate on a set, annual schedule.

Many public employees across the country are agreeing to wage freezes and other concessions in this terrible economy, ensuring that their colleagues can keep their jobs—so why won’t more teachers? Or, more importantly, should they? After all, they already make too little. Way too little. Although educators perform jobs of incredible importance—to children’s lives, to our economy—their pay is terrible. According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary is just $55,350. In Texas, which has an average salary of $47,157, more than one quarter of teachers have reported working second jobs. 

The long-term answer to the teacher salary problem is to change the way educators are paid, evaluated, and, if necessary, dismissed. As I (among many others) have written before, teachers should be paid based on their effectiveness, not just their seniority. Simply raising the salaries of teachers based on the numbers of years they’ve taught does not guarantee that the best educators are valued most. Simultaneously, ineffective teachers should regularly be let go, no matter their experience level. As Marguerite Roza, an education finance expert on leave from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, recently told me, “If you had a teacher evaluation system that regularly exited teachers based on performance, you wouldn’t really need a layoff system.” And, if such a system did prove necessary in a budget crisis, it shouldn’t be the near-universal “last-hired, first-fired” policy that unions cling to now. Under this scheme, junior teachers are given the boot before more senior ones, regardless of their performance in the classroom. Because novice teachers cost less to employ than more senior ones do, this bad policy requires handing out pink slips to more teachers than is necessary.

Of course, you can’t flip a switch and make all of this happen tomorrow. It takes time, which lawmakers don’t have. “By not planning and waiting until the last minute, the only choice you have is layoffs,” Marguerite Roza says. Indeed, unless the Senate finds another, better way to pay for edujobs, the choices may come down to Congress gutting key education reforms to dole out emergency money, districts laying off a bunch of teachers, or unions begrudgingly agreeing to salary concessions. All three are unappealing options.