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Do We Need a New Funding Source for Public Education to Improve Quality?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
October 14, 2019

For more than 150 years, since the education reform movement led by Massachusetts Senate President Horace Mann in the 1830’s, leadership in education has been increasingly centered at the state level. Of course, since the launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in October 1957, the federal government has shared that leadership role with states as an important building block in national security through setting educational standards and providing some financial aid. Nevertheless, pre-K through 12th grade education, including standards for non-public schools, continues to be seen as mostly a state government responsibility.

In Massachusetts, and most other states, governors, legislators and state education leaders determine graduation requirements, teacher licensing rules and educational standards. Since 2004, they have also determined the requirements and funding for school building construction and renovation. However, municipalities and local or regional school districts control most of the personnel and compensation issues in public education. Clearly, the state government continues to periodically, “Reform,” the school funding formula, but state aid but state aid represents only about 40% of total school spending. The majority of education funding, despite a major reform in 1993, continues to be supported through local government, primarily from property tax revenues, and the lion’s share of school funding supports salaries. School budgets generally represent a major part of local costs funded primarily by local property tax payers

Many education experts have argued that improving teacher salaries will improve educational quality. However, the heavy reliance of school budgets on property tax revenues, and in many cases declining enrollments, has made increasing teacher salaries difficult to attract local voter and school board support. Proponents of merit-based salaries have suggested such a system as more affordable than, “Across-the-board,” salary increases. The collective bargaining system strongly supported by the statewide teacher unions has sunk most, if not all, plans for basing salaries on merit. The argument falters on concerns regarding who decides which teachers merit higher pay and on finding an objective measure to evaluate merit. John Morton, in an article entitled, “Will Raising the Salaries of Teachers Improve Educational Quality?” claims, “The typical teacher salary is a vestige of socialism,” adding, “There is no relationship between teacher quality and teacher compensation.”

Some states have proposed raising teacher salaries to improve quality, arguing that it will attract better people into the profession and help retain experienced teachers. Such plans vary from an Oklahoma proposal for state-supported across the board raises of $3,000, to North Carolina’s proposed $1800 bonus, to plans being considered in South Dakota, Tennessee and New Mexico that could increase teacher pay to $48,500 supported by a modest sales tax increase. California recently considered offering state income tax credits for students working to obtain their education credentials or pursuing advanced degrees. Beyond salary increases for teachers, other ideas that have been proposed include a state income tax exemption, but teachers fear that this could increase voter opposition to education.  However, it appears that most of the funding for teacher salaries in all of these proposals would continue to rely on local tax sources. Massachusetts could face a constitutional barrier if it tries to set a statewide minimum salary for teachers since the Massachusetts Constitution, in Amendment 115 prohibits the state government from imposing new costs on local budgets without full funding.

I would suggest that states consider classifying teachers as state, rather than local, employees, raise teacher salaries and accept the full cost of teacher salaries. Such a plan would shift collective bargaining to the state level rather than to numerous school districts. While it would need a source of funding, state tax resources are arguably fairer than the regressive property tax and the broader tax base would minimize the dramatic variations in wealth from one community to another. Such a dramatic shift in Massachusetts, on a scale comparable to the state assumption of welfare in the 1970’s may need to be phased in and protections for property taxpayers would need to be included to contain local non-school spending. School districts being required to pay for students’ health-related costs through special education, including mental health and drug addiction treatment, as well as security and safety, state assumption of teacher salaries, health care and pensions could far outweigh any loss of local control of education. In fact, it could be argued that local control is more fiction than fact. Obviously, the idea of state funding and the setting of teacher salaries and benefits needs a good deal of vetting and may not be easy to achieve in some states, but if it can improve educational quality as well as attract and retain the best teachers, it may be worth the effort.


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served in Washington, DC as Associate Director of FEMA in the Clinton Administration and as a Presidential Elector in 1992. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. He was a leading sponsor of legislation to reform Massachusetts School Building Assistance and of the state constitution’s “Home Rule” amendment 115.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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