Prepare for a (good) schools arms race

Imagine a future in which Indiana school districts bid up salaries for star teachers to $100,000 or more to develop a district specialty in a field like science or math—and cause students to excel.

That scenario isn’t so far-fetched if Gov. Mitch Daniels, schools chief Tony Bennett and other reformers play their cards wisely in the upcoming General Assembly, says Jonathan Plucker, who directs the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy in Indiana University’s School of Education. In Plucker’s opinion, comprehensive reform would spark myriad micro arms races among school districts, and that stands to be a good thing.

Lawmakers “have a great opportunity here,” Plucker says. “I’m really hoping they seize it.”

First, some whopping caveats. Plucker isn’t advocating going back to the days when teachers were paid dirt and sometimes treated little better. Teachers unions aren’t leery of reform for no reason.

Plucker also cautions that legislation allowing schools to pay teachers for performance instead of just education levels and years of service won’t do the trick by itself. There will never be enough extra money to motivate lazy teachers, he says, and besides, the type of people who go into education aren’t terribly motivated by money.

Another big reform on the drawing board, open enrollment, won’t generate big returns in student learning in itself, either. Why would a parent want to move a child to another mediocre district?

However, he says, marry merit pay with open enrollment and the state has potential to see fireworks.

It isn’t difficult to imagine, say, Carmel, deciding to focus on science and pouring money into attracting the best and brightest teachers in the field. Star instructors would be paid six figures. To compensate for the high salaries, class sizes would rise and teachers in the remaining positions in English, art and other subjects would be paid well but not great.

Meanwhile, Hamilton Southeastern might look to math, while Zionsville might develop expertise in social studies. Even within districts, one elementary might specialize in one topic and another elementary a different topic.

Parents could shift their children from school to school to take advantage of the expertise.

“The day of the truly comprehensive school district is coming to an end,” Plucker says.

Plucker notes that the $100,000 projection appeared in a study by the conservative Fordham Foundation, and that it probably wouldn’t be far off if market forces were brought to bear on K-12 education. Teacher base salaries in many local districts currently top out in the mid- to high-$70,000 range, and in the low $90,000s when benefits are included.

What are your thoughts? How far should lawmakers go in the next session, and what changes would get the best results?

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