Columns » John Brummett

Walton man says teacher pay's fine

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The Waltons of that world-class Wal-Mart wealth have given money to the University of Arkansas to employ this guy to go around saying public school teachers get paid plenty already.

That sounds like an ironic joke. It sounds like something I’d come up with if a guy said, “Hey, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you can write something crazy that makes every school teacher in Arkansas throw an eraser across the classroom.”

But I’m just giving you the straight skinny.

The Walton Foundation famously bestowed those hundreds of millions on the U of A in the biggest higher education gift ever. Part of it went to this education reform operation — maybe reform should’ve been in quotes — to preach student testing and merit teacher pay and charter schools.

This education reform operation contains this specially endowed chair occupied by Dr. Jay P. Greene, a Harvard man who also has concurrent work as a senior fellow with the right-wing Manhattan Institute, funded in part by rich old Clinton-hater Richard Mellon Scaife.

On Friday, Greene shared a double byline on a piece in The Wall Street Journal’s online edition saying teachers on average get $34 per hour and that this is better than economists or architects or average white-collar workers get on average.

Well, now. He arrived at this figure by not annualizing teacher income, but figuring it on a nine-month basis. Time off in the summer, and for spring break and the holiday season, has monetary value, he said.

Greene wrote that the best-paid teachers tend to work in urban areas producing the worst student test scores, as if better-paid teachers meant lower-performing students. As if we might produce nothing but National Merit finalists if we paid teachers zero. Socio-economic factors provide the explanation, of course.

He wrote — and you knew this was coming — that the problem is not how much teachers get, but the way they get it. He eschewed the current prevailing system basing pay on experience and education level, favoring, of course, a merit system tied to extra work and student test performance.

He contended that teachers get paid plenty already, but that we don’t get better education by paying them so well. Then he turned around and said we need to pay some even more if we want better education.

I guess that kind of logic is what the UA paid for when it hired Greene in the summer of 2005 at a reported salary of $160,000 a year.

A hundred and sixty thousand bucks? How much does that come to per hour, considering his concurrent work with the Manhattan Institute? What kinds of benefits are accruing to UA matriculants as a result of that salary, surely one of the highest on campus except for football coaches?

Allow me to summarize. Adapting some successful charter school methods and paying more to teachers working extra hours to perform them — that’s a worthy notion. Tying teacher bonuses to student test scores is misguided and counterproductive, in my opinion, but debatable and not inherently nonsensical.

What’s inherently nonsensical — no, breathtakingly offensive — is for someone interested in those very reforms to be so politically lead-footed as to write an article saying teachers are paid plenty already, and do so while he pulls down $160,000 or more in a public education faculty position himself, and while he is underwritten by a foundation created by wealthy heirs of a fortune gleaned in part from low employee wages and sparse employee benefits.

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