Old School in Virginia

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL hopefuls R. Creigh Deeds (D) and Robert F. McDonnell (R) both promise to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Much of the debate has focused on whether the state can afford to do so and on which candidate would come up with the money. But they both have set the wrong goal. There are more effective ways to improve teacher quality.

Mr. Deeds was the first on the bandwagon; he sponsored legislation last year to bring state teachers' salaries, averaging $48,665, to the national average of $54,170. Mr. McDonnell recently unveiled an education plan costing $480 million a year that promises to raise teacher salaries. Both have outlined dubious proposals to finance this expense, which is estimated to cost $400 million a year. Mr. Deeds would require state agencies to adopt zero-based budgeting while wringing efficiencies from school spending; Mr. McDonnell would free money by requiring that 65 percent of operating funds go to the classroom.

Low salaries discourage people from entering, and staying, in teaching. But across-the-board increases to an artificial average are a discredited relic -- the education equivalent of building a gas guzzler when the market has turned to hybrids. For one, systems don't compete nationally for teachers; the ability to be competitive with nearby districts is far more important.

More significant, there is no evidence that paying everyone more to do essentially the same thing produces results, particularly in the area of student achievement. Indeed, there is no evidence that better paid teachers produce better results; witness the fact that D.C. teachers earn more than those in Virginia. Far better use of scarce public dollars is to encourage meaningful reforms, such as linking teacher pay to student test scores so that effective teachers are properly rewarded. Or giving bonuses for teaching hard-to-staff subjects or in hard-to-staff schools, or breaking the chokehold of seniority and tenure so that bad teachers can be weeded out. Here's where a governor could make a real difference, following the lead of President Obama, who has set aside money to reward states willing to change.

There are some glimpses of that willingness in the gubernatorial campaigns. We admire Mr. McDonnell's outspoken support for charter schools; Mr. Deeds has interesting ideas on how to encourage people to become teachers in Virginia. Both see the need for toughening standards. Each says that he supports the concept of performance pay, Mr. McDonnell more convincingly than Mr. Deeds. But neither has fully developed proposals that he is really pushing.


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