Columns » Warwick Sabin

Show them the money

by and

An op-ed columnist for the New York Times made the most fascinating point last week. He said that people are more likely to take a job if you offer them more money. Actually, the writer, Matt Miller, was recommending dramatic salary increases for public school teachers who work in poor areas, and he used some sophisticated data and policy knowledge to make his case. But in the end, his argument boiled down to a simple truth all of us can understand. Even some of the most idealistic and dedicated young teachers I know — each one unquestionably smart and talented — decided to leave Arkansas for a state that pays its teachers better. Embarrassingly, none of them had to go very far. Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and other states in our region are luring away our teachers with the world’s most reliable bait. Still, there is always passionate resistance to the idea of raising teacher salaries in Arkansas. They only work nine months of the year, some say. Arkansas has a lower cost of living, others are quick to mention. Both contentions are true, of course, but they are irrelevant in the context of our competition with other states. The best teachers are almost always going to go where they can make the most money. We can either try to bring them here by offering attractive salaries, or we can continue to lose them because we are too jealous to give them a comfortable lifestyle. But wouldn’t it be nice if teaching were a profession that inspired jealousy? A nice salary and summers off might convince our brightest minds to choose a career in teaching instead of business, law or medicine. Most surprising is that conservatives consistently reject this logic. One would think they would instinctively appreciate that the competition for skilled workers in any free-market industry is fierce, and the best talent follows the most generous compensation. We are often told that wealthy people and corporations won’t move to Arkansas — and that the ones already here might leave at any moment — because we have the audacity to impose an income tax. And our voters were encouraged to approve Amendment 2 last year, giving the state authority to grant over $200 million in bonds to build infrastructure for companies that put facilities here, because Arkansas would not be able to land the projects otherwise. “Without Amendment 2, these high-paying jobs will continue to pass us by,” Jim Pickens, the state’s former top economic development official, told the Jacksonville Leader. The article added, “He said the amendment gives Arkansas the same tools to compete that Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi already have.” In a similar way, higher teacher salaries would prevent the best teachers from passing us by. And if we can spend over $200 million to land an auto plant that will employ a few hundred people, why can’t we spend at least that much to attract the best people to teach our kids statewide? Does anyone underestimate the value of a great teacher? Especially in poor and undereducated areas, a teacher may be the only person able to instill in children the value and importance of learning. By challenging, enlightening and mentoring his or her students, a great teacher can literally change lives and, by extension, whole communities. From an economic development standpoint, a well-educated workforce would be our most powerful asset in the coming decades as the nation makes the transition from an industrial to an information-based economy. That means we should try to do whatever it takes to compete — the more dramatic, the better. It’s a simple equation: We need to get better teachers to improve our state’s education system, and we know that increasing their salaries would help us achieve that goal. If we can find the money for tax cuts and corporate subsidies, we can find the money for this far more important public interest. Unless, of course, you think things are just fine the way they are, and that the only people who make decisions on the basis of dollars and cents are rich people and CEOs.

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