Waste and Abuse

I read with interest a recent post by Mindful Stew in which the author made the outrageous suggestion that teachers be paid what they are worth. Well, actually he suggested they be paid $100,000 to start, but that was to get our attention. And he did get readers’ attention! The comments were numerous and many of them insightful, though others a bit spiteful. The most frequent objection to the notion that we should pay more taxes to support public education is that there is waste and lack of accountability in the public sector. This is true.

I worked for nearly four decades in the public sector, teaching at a small Midwestern public university where I saw countless examples of waste and downright stupidity. As coach of the women’s tennis team, for example, I was expected to order supplies from approved vendors whose names were on a list provided to all coaches when I could buy a gross of tennis balls from Wal-Mart for 35% less than I would have to pay the “approved” vendor — which I did. The women’s basketball team would climb on a bus and travel five hours to Duluth to play a game on the same night the Duluth men’s team came to our campus! Eventually this stopped, but the objection at the time was that if the men and women played in the same place on the same night the men would get a larger audience. So for that reason the practice went on for years. Needless to say, the athletic teams — even at this small university  — stayed in expensive motels. And then there was the time-honored budgetary practice of punishing frugal employees. If the budget was not spent at the end of the fiscal year next year’s budget would be cut by that amount. And there are countless other examples of waste and stupidity. I dare say my readers who work or have worked in the public sector could add many of their own.

So let’s agree that there is waste and abuse of the money we send the state or the federal government to help provide services. There should be accountability, clearly. And employees should be rewarded when they save the taxpayers money, not punished — as should departments and agencies. But none of this really addresses the central issue which is that our teachers are horribly underpaid — barely above poverty levels in many states. For many teachers there needs to be another wage-earner in the family and it is a rare example of a teacher who can even think of buying a home, especially in the first years.

As a consequence of these low salaries, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in this country who steer away from teaching because they know they will struggle. It shouldn’t be about money, but money is essential. Anyone who denies that is purblind or downright stupid. Many of the comments on “Stew’s” blog were from people who went another direction because of the low salaries in teaching. As a consequence, numerous studies suggest that nationwide we are now drawing from the bottom third or in some cases the bottom fourth of the college pool: our teachers were not among the highest achievers in our colleges — as a rule. I have heard from and read blogs by teachers who are sharp and very committed (including “mindful stew”), and while teaching at the college level for forty years I had a number of advisees who became outstanding teachers. But these people are the exception, sad to say.  In most cases around the country our kids are not getting the best teachers and it is not a huge leap to conclude that much of this is due to low salaries which bring with them low self-esteem and low-expectations. I have even read a couple of comments that pointed out that the kids themselves have a low opinion of their teachers because they know they are poorly paid. I dare say they hear this at home. In our culture, like it or not, money speaks volumes.

In any case, while I might blanch at starting teachers at $100,000 a year, a salary of $50,000 does seem reasonable. We can all certainly afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to support education. But in the meantime, if the school districts have a problem finding the money to pay the teachers they could save a considerable amount of money by reducing the number of administrators and support staff by 50-60% There’s a bunch of money going to waste there! A couple of well-organized administrators and two or three efficient secretaries could run a school of several thousand easily. It is done in business all the time, though I hate to suggest that we borrow from the business model. Or (and I hesitate to say this) we could reduce the inordinate number of athletic teams at the high school and college levels and concentrate on the few that truly benefit the students and contribute to the goal of educating young minds. But this borders on heresy.

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8 thoughts on “Waste and Abuse

  1. I dare say salary is not the only top issue today. No Child Left Behind and other misguided political reforms have left teachers as little more than test- teaching robots. There are many issues in addition to spending. Cut wasted, govt mandated administration, reward innovation, kill tenure, extend the school year, allow and encourage exceptional performance, etc etc.

    • Indeed. But I feel the need to focus on one thing at a time, especially since the Republicans have targeted the public sector and keep screaming about cutting programs and reducing taxes. Thank for the comment!

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  2. In the consulting business, the key is to hire good people and have them go see your clients. In Finland, the teacher is as valued a position as a doctor or lawyer. Finland dwarfs the US in educational rankings. So, Finland attracts top drawer people. Yet, the other key is they do not hamstring the teacher. They give the teacher a great deal of freedom to teach. Sir Ken Robinson notes that tailoring as much as possible a specific student’s curriculum is the key to success. We need structured variability as a model from where I sit. Here are the overarching things the children need to know, but go teach.

  3. Merci. You probably did that already. I borrowed that term from another application, but it seemed to fit. I like your anecdotes on inefficient sports team travel.

  4. I always think it’s strange that the first thing that gets cut in a budget crisis is education — teacher jobs, school hours, school libraries…. Kind of liking cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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