Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Discussing Compensation Does Not Disparage Dedicated Educators

In recent weeks, I have explained my position that there needs to be a more transparent, more public discussion of the structure of compensation and benefits in public education. In a recent post, I said that the process of reviewing our costs and benefits should be "open and fully transparent." I said that the public would benefit from understanding our system of compensation, and I said, "Let the public review begin." This statement has enraged some people, claiming that it was akin to George Bush's famous words "bring it on" challenge to the terrorists. I did not mean to disparage anyone with that comment. I find that interpretation of a public officials statement that the public has a right to understand the compensation system and the bargaining system that determines the very survival of public education pretty strange. Evidently some folks believe that publicly to discuss the cost of compensation, the structure of compensation, and the bargaining process is a violation of some unwritten rule. I dissent from that point of view.

I believe that the public's business must be done in public view--all of it. The cost of a public education is a matter of high public importance. The public needs to understand more about the costs and what is driving them, not less. All over the state of Minnesota right now, school districts are locked in a struggle over survival. District after district is paralyzed because they are caught in a vice-grip between funding cuts on the one hand and expectations from employees that they receive increases in pay that the districts cannot afford. These districts are being asked to make significant increases in class size, cut major programs, and it is not appropriate to meet this challenge in the back room. This problem will not be solved with less transparency; it needs more.

Perhaps some people sensed a bit of a tone of anger in the syntax of my words in that previous blog. I regret that tone, because it wrongly suggested to some that I was disparaging individual dedicated public servants. I apologize for that. I was disappointed. Often it is the people who you respect the most who disappoint you the most. We have superb public servants working for the school district. They do a great job. They have dedicated their careers to what I regard as God's work: the nurturing of children. They often feel abandoned, as they do their work against the background of increasing child poverty and what seems to them an ever increasing sense that parents aren't as supportive of the work of educators as they used to be.

One of the ideas that we must drive out of public education is that by discussing the compensation of our employees publicly we are criticizing the work that they do. That is not the point. Education is the most valuable commodity in our society, or nearly so. More valuable than financial planning and the brokering of stock, more valuable than lawyering, accounting, and even doctoring. For it is educators who train financial planners, stock brokers, lawyers, accountants and doctors. We under value educators in our society and the consequence of that under-valuing is that policy makers in St. Paul and Congress can allow it to decline without public consequence.

Some people claim that it is wrong to discuss our compensation system in public because it is offensive to our employees. To them I say that I am proud to be one of those people who defends every last dollar that we pay to educators. I know that they work hard. I know that they are doing important work. I deplore people who think that educators are overpaid. I think that the State of Minnesota is not investing enough in education, and I believe that an open and transparent discussion is what is needed to establish that fact.

The problem in Minnesota that is destroying public education is not that teachers and administrators are overpaid. The problem is that we have a system that forces local school districts to pay them more than they can afford. Precious few superintendents are willing to face their citizens and explain that fact. Precious few school boards are willing to open up and explain what is going on. A system has developed in Minnesota where superintendents and boards go behind closed doors and make settlements with their employees, the consequences of which they know take us further down the road towards the destruction of our public education system. It is regarded as bad form to tell the truth. Who are we protecting? Many school boards and superintendents are now finding new ways to evade the true cost of these settlements. And when they do that, their lack of transparency and courage avoids making public the true nature of the problem in public education.. Unless the problem is publicly discussed, it cannot be solved.

When I say that the public education financial system is broken because superintendents and boards are persistently paying out more than they can, I am not attacking teachers or administrators. They earn what they get paid. The problem is that we are paying them what we cannot afford to pay them, and somebody has eventually got to talk about this problem, as painful as it is, before it is too late.

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