Does This Spending Help Students?

January 2007

This op-ed by Marguerite Roza originally appeared in The Providence Journal.

Rule number one in public budgeting: Organizations show their priorities by how they spend their money. That's why it's important to understand how much money is spent on different school-district policies, including those dictated by common teacher-contract provisions.

Most people would be surprised to learn that nationally nearly 20 percent of current education funds support policies with a weak or inconsistent relationship to student learning. Yet that is exactly what I found in a recent study published by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector.

Assuming contract provisions in Rhode Island reflect the national norm, about $335 million of $1.7 billion spent on education in the state budget is tied up in teacher-contract language that dictates spending in ways that are not closely tied to student learning.

Those provisions include increases in teacher salaries based on years of experience, high numbers of paid sick and personal days, above-average health and retirement benefits, and teachers' aides. This is not money that could just be pulled out of education with no effect. Rather, it is money that could be spent to greater effect.

This could be accomplished by focusing on the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. Teacher pay that is now based solely on the number of years in the classroom, regardless of performance, could be structured differently to still reward teachers, but in a way more closely tied to student learning.

Districts could also increase starting teacher salaries and target salary bonuses to those working with high-needs students. Funds that support retirement plans that disproportionately benefit teachers who stay in the system for decades could be converted into a mix of salary bonuses and more portable defined-contribution retirement plans that would attract younger candidates.

It will be difficult to make progress toward repurposing existing funds. Teachers unions rightly worry that new spending priorities could work against the interests of teachers. Less helpfully, some teachers unions argue that current contract provisions don't impose costs or create trade-offs, rather than debating the merit of the costs imposed.

Rather than pretend that contract provisions don't impose costs, and avoid consideration of trade-offs, both labor and management must engage with these tough choices and consider if there are better ways to spend the money we have. After all, in the coming years public resources for education and other social programs will become scarce as the population ages and entitlement spending increases.

Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri hosted a National Governor's Association conference about teachers' contracts just last month. The landmark two-day affair brought together policymakers and teacher organizations from across the country to examine how collective bargaining and teacher contracts could best support the goal of improving student success.

That's the right conversation to have. Only when all spending trade-offs are considered through the lens of student performance can we say that learning is truly the first priority.

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