Callaghan: Question of fairness arises in state teacher pay debate

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

An important issue in public education in Washington is in the hands of a rather obscure group. The Compensation Technical Working Group is made up of some school administrators, school board members, policy experts and a teachers union lobbyist. They are charged with making recommendations on how and how much teachers will be paid.

One starting point is an analysis of current pay for teachers and other school employees by Texas A&M associate professor Lori Taylor. She compared Washington's teacher pay to the compensation of state residents with comparable education levels. "Total salaries are competitive in most of the state, and the fringe benefits appear unusually generous," Taylor wrote. "As such, the total compensation packages offered by Washington school districts appear sufficient to attract and retain a high-quality workforce."

To Taylor, "total salaries" means both money the state sends to districts for teacher compensation and the money paid teachers from local levy proceeds. By law, local levy money is not supposed to pay any cost of basic education. Levy money can be used only as compensation for extra time, responsibility and as incentives, also known as TRI pay. But districts have maintained for years that they have to use more and more levy money for basics, including basic teacher pay.

Taylor understands why. Her examination of the money sent by the state showed that it is often inadequate to offer competitive pay comparable to what other college graduates can earn in the same communities. Only by using levy dollars can many districts recruit and retain staff.

Constitutional duty

On one level, it doesn't matter where the money comes from. But on a different and more important level, says Taylor, there is a difference. Both recent legislation and the 2012 McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court require that the state meet its constitutional duty to cover all costs for basic education. The state can't allow districts with more lucrative local levies to pay higher salaries and have more money for basic education than property poor districts. Fixing this will shift the entire burden of teacher pay to the state.

Another Taylor recommendation might be just as controversial. She concludes that big-city districts and surrounding suburbs face higher costs for teachers and other staff. Therefore, if the state covers all costs of delivering basic education, it should create a pay differential for urban districts. The work group agrees. It has proposed that districts in King and Snohomish counties receive 8 percent to 9 percent more from the state to pay those teachers more. Districts in Pierce County would get an extra 1 to 4 percent.

But that's not fair, respond educators from rural districts and even a superintendent from a district that might gain a bit from the differential. Seattle-area schools already have a hiring advantage over the rest of the state and have no trouble recruiting and retaining teachers. Rural districts are considered property poor because they don't have nearly the property values that urban areas do. Therefore, to get the same bang from a school levy, their tax rates must be set exponentially higher. Some can't pass levies at all.

Yet in its draft recommendations, which also cover aspects of teacher pay other than regional pay differentials, the work group says only that it is "still debating the regional cost of hiring allowance and its relationship to" TRI.

It has been difficult to reach a consensus, and any recommendation on reforming TRI will not be unanimous. Not only are some nonurban areas suspicious of regional pay differentials, the Washington Education Association insists that uses of local levy money be determined not by the state but by collective bargaining with local unions. Any recommendations ultimately must be approved by the Legislature. "I'm looking forward to solving this problem, but it will be hard," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter. "I see a path through, but there's a lot of fog."