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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Second Opinion
The wrong teacher discussion

By Cliff Slater

The discussion over teacher pay is replete with statements that lack relevance.

Some say we must give teachers healthy raises since "It's only fair." Others discuss the importance of allowing for the cost of living, and still others say we should pay teachers more but there's no money left in the budget.

Shortly, someone will tell us that it is all about "social justice."

None of this is relevant.

In this information age, when teachers can go online and find the salaries and benefits offered by virtually any school district in the nation, the marketplace sets teacher salaries. And, as schools around the nation escalate teacher salaries, we can either pay market prices or not.

Clearly, since we have such a shortage of math, science and special-ed teachers, we are currently not willing to pay the price for these much-sought-after teachers.

However, a sound education for Hawai'i's children is plainly our voters' priority. That means qualified, competent, motivated teachers in adequate facilities with the right books and equipment — at a minimum. And real commitment is when you are willing to sacrifice much to accomplish that minimum.

Our lack of commitment is evident in that we are effectively telling teachers that the $200 million their raises will cost is not available because we are not going to question anything else in the overall government budget — even the education budget. In short, there's money, but those who are getting it now deserve it more than you do because you are not a priority.

Instead, we should start committing to pay market prices for needed teachers as a given. Then we need to adopt zero-based budgeting — the norm in any well-run business. You question every aspect of state expenditures. You question the value of each line item and every salary and every service, and for every one ask the question: Is this person or service worth more than our children's education? This includes questioning every line item and every salary in the Department of Education. Nothing should be sacred; public worker union officials should be told that it is "children first."

For example, we must question the overall number of teachers — do we truly need this many? Compared with 25 years ago, we have 5 percent more students, yet 70 percent more teachers. Read that again; we need a detailed and cogent explanation for such an increase. We have to ask whether fewer, better-paid teachers would be more effective.

And that is before you get to the education bureaucracy. The problem with excessive bureaucracy is not just the waste. It is that once you have more bureaucrats than the minimum necessary, they start needing to justify their jobs. They send out paperwork for principals and teachers to fill in, they call meetings, they initiate new — and usually worthless — programs. In essence, they interrupt the only important employees of the DOE — the teachers and the principals.

And then we have to ask whether the Department of Accounting and General Services is the most cost-effective way to accomplish school repairs or would local contractors do a better job. To keep this brief, just ask the first principal or teacher you meet.

In short, we have to come to grips with Hawai'i's bloated state budget if "commitment to education excellence" is ever to be anything other than a joke.

We must, in Herman Kahn's great phrase, "Think through the unthinkable." He was talking about nuclear war. Judging from the past, our elected officials would appear to sooner face nuclear war than the wrath of public worker union officials.

Nevertheless, voters should insist on it.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater