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Friday, September 26, 2008

Economist: South Dakota Pays Teachers Enough

University of Rochester economist Michael Wolkoff tells Judge Wilbur and all interested parties in the school funding lawsuit that South Dakota is paying its teachers enough to keep the schools staffed with good professionals.

Now I could say we don't need some egghead elitist telling us what South Dakota schools need. But I would also have a personality meltdown if I took that line. Professor Wolkoff cites a fact I myself cited yesterday (and which my commenters frequently cite as well): all of South Dakota's wages are in the tank. Wolkoff concludes therefore that in-state market forces won't pull good teachers away from teaching.

Wolkoff also addresses out-of-state wage competition: he finds that 91% of teachers stay in teaching in state from year to year (87% stay at their current school; 4% take a job at another SD school district). Only 9% either leave to teach in another state or quit teaching all together.

I'm not an expert on these numbers, but they compare fairly well with the "quits" rate for education nationwide. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells me that the annual voluntary turnover rate in "educational services" was 11.5% in 2007, and has ranged between 10.9% and 12.5% this decade. Compare that to the annual quits rate in financial activities (18.5%), health care and social assistance (18.8%), or retail (no annual average given, but the monthly rates add up to well over 25%).

I've said we have to focus on offering teachers wages that compete with the offers they can get across the border. Wolkoff's numbers say that even if we haven't been competitive with Minnesota and Wyoming, we've still been able to fill all of our positions.

Now before I decide I've been wrong for all these years arguing that we need to pay teachers more, let's look at the weaknesses in Professor Wolkoff's testimony:
  • Wolkoff admits he hasn't spoken to any administrators in South Dakota. He says we can't let anecdotal evidence skew our view of the big picture.
  • Wolkoff also doesn't look ahead: Do we have enough applicants to fill the coming retirement boom? Do we have enough aspiring teachers in-state to fill those positions, or will we need to import talent from out of state?
Wolkoff is testifying to support Pierre's head-in-the-sand approach. Maybe Wolkoff should have talked to a few more local officials. The administrators and school boards who can more directly observe what's happening on the ground in education seem to believe the system does need more funding. The local administrators are the ones having to gamble on picks from smaller applicant pools. The Madison and Watertown school boards both felt compelled to offer significant pay boosts this year to attract and retain talent. And remember: while South Dakota's local districts rank 24th in the nation in their provision of per-student revenue for education, Pierre remains in a very stingy 50th place.

Pierre doesn't think schools need more money. The folks making education happen every day seem to think otherwise.


  1. WOW. Just wow.

    So I take it the only metric to determine if we are paying enough is if we have a warm body in the class room? That seems pretty ridiculous to me.

    While this may be appropriate for telemarketing or tech support (where people are essentially just repeating the same task over and over), this same mentality can and should not be applied to teaching.

    Teachers must be adaptable and capable of connecting with students on a case by case basis to effectively teach. If we ignore that these skill are scarce and valuable, we will just hire random people to fill the need. Which in turn, leads to poor teaching.

    I don't mean to belittle teachers here, but the "filter" at the college level is set pretty low. If you want to become a teacher you can grind away at it and they will eventually hand you a degree. Further, I'm highly suspect of the idea that a college degree accurately conveys one's ability to teach.

    If the state level logic here is that we're paying enough because we've got bodies in the class rooms, this will not end well.

  2. Here's a trend to consider. 9% leave teaching altogether and 4% leave our state each year because they can't afford to stay in teaching or because school districts are demanding more and more from less educators as they struggle to balance their budgets.

    The economic burden has been transferred from the State to local district taxpayers with so many opt-outs. With less high school grads seeking a teaching degree and 13% leaving teaching in South Dakota each year, eventually districts will have to increase salaries in order to get any applicants, period. This all comes on the backs of local taxpayers. That's what this lawsuit is all about. The transfer of financial burden within the funding formula that is crushing local school districts.

  3. Comrade:

    The implied argument is that we don't have qualified teachers in SD because we don't compensate them accordingly.

    We have really good dedicated teachers in SD. Of course we have a few rotten apples in the basket, but hose are the ones who get weeded out anyway.

    Greed is not a primary motivating force when it comes to picking education as a vocation.

    Teachers don't necessarily leave the profession because they aren't paid enough - they leave because of internal school politics... because they don't feel appreciation from administration...because it's time for them to move on to something else in life.

    We now spend our money on technology and not people.

  4. One comment about the above post. Bad teachers do not necessarily get weeded out. They have tenure, they are nice people, and/or they are great coaches, but very poor teachers. They stay until they retire and get the highest wages based on length of time teaching. And you wonder why some people do not want to pay teachers more. This is one major reason.


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