Thursday, April 28, 2011

The more things change: School finance edition

Several media outlets, including the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster (the first newspaper I worked for, back when Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush were president) and the Wisconsin State Journal, are reporting an unprecedented number of teacher retirements as the latest consequence of Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to defang public employee unions.

The Herald Independent's story (to which I can't post since the Herald Independent is not online, so you'll have to trust me) includes a number of teachers from not just my days at the Herald Independent, but from my wife's days as a Lancaster High School student. 

That is big news. It would be unprecedented big news if your memory includes only years that begin with the number 2. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and possibly before that), the state would occasionally encourage early retirements as, yes, a way to reduce spending on employee compensation, since the teachers in the classroom the longest were the highest paid given how teachers' pay is set.

In those days, the "rule of 85" applied -- if your age and years as a teacher (or other government employee, although I don't recall covering other government employee retirements) totaled 85 (for instance, you were 55 years old and you had taught for 30 years), you could retire with full benefits. The "rule of 85" appears to have been replaced by "the rule of 30" -- full retirement benefits kick in for anyone in the Wisconsin Retirement System with 30 years' service, although retiring employees younger than 57 have reduced benefits until their 57th birthday.

The difference between then and now is that early teacher retirements are being portrayed in the media as a bad thing, in which teachers (including a present and former teacher of one of my children) are being forced to retire because of evil Fuhrer Walker. In the previous era, early teacher retirements were portrayed as a way to reduce school district spending because the retiring teachers would be replaced by younger teachers who, one assumes, were making less money.

Everyone's personal finances are their own business and no one else's, of course. (Government employees' personal finances are the business of taxpayers to the extent that taxpayers have been paying their salaries for as long as they have been in government employ.) It seems a waste for someone who is still productive to be forced to retire because of their fears over what they think might happen to their retirement benefits. It also seems a waste for productive teachers to be seen essentially as a replaceable commodity, as one might have concluded back in the 20th century. (However, as long as colleges and universities continue to pump out education graduates every year, well, draw your own conclusions.)

That gets to a reality that has been lost in Walker's war with the unions. Teachers are paid on a scale on which one axis is years in the classroom and level of education is on the other. Teachers who are coaches or have other extra responsibility get a little additional pay. There is no other way for high-quality teachers to make more money other than by earning an advanced degree, other than merely showing up for work. The union environment doesn't allow for individual reward, while also protecting teachers whose level of performance means they shouldn't be teaching.

Employees, particularly teachers, should want to be judged on their own performance, because lumping them together with minimum-effort or minimum-performance employees doesn't benefit the high performers. And given that we taxpayers pay teacher salaries, that is absolutely the taxpayer's business.

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