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Bluegrass Beacon: Inconvenient truth about teachers’ salaries

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

“Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed,” wrote 18th century English writer Daniel Defoe in “The Political History of the Devil.”

“As certain as death and taxes” is the fact that discussions with defenders of Kentucky’s mediocre public-education system will be dominated by claims of underfunding schools, underpaying teachers and poverty as excuses for that mediocrity. Because such claims are rarely supported by credible data, Defoe’s conclusion that anything so certain “can be more firmly believed” is where the analogy – at least as it relates to public-education bureaucrats’ predictable claims – breaks down.

For example, on a recent edition of KET’s “Kentucky Tonight,” Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, was asked by host Renee Shaw what teachers need to ensure better educational attainment? (Note that Shaw’s premise was right: better educational attainment is needed.)

“The main thing that’s missing for our teachers is that our teachers, first of all, are underpaid as compared to their peers,” Shelton grumbled. There was no “second of all,” and the only conclusion Shelton offered is: teachers are saints while taxpayers are stingy.

“I think that the job that our teachers do, considering the pay that they receive and the lack of financial support they have – is phenomenal in our school system,” Shelton said. (Shelton’s comments are at the video’s 11-minute mark.)

While Kentucky has some great teachers, how believable are these cynical statements about “financial support,” considering taxpayers will fork over an additional $1.2 billion to the Teachers’ Retirement System in the current state budget, an amount which Gov. Matt Bevin proposes increasing to $2.3 billion in the commonwealth’s next budget being debated during the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly?

Shelton says he appreciates Bevin’s commitment to funding pensions and even acknowledges that teachers receive generous benefits before returning to his narrative that they are headed to the poor house.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, maintains the average career teacher in the commonwealth makes around $50,000 and concedes a National Education Association claim indicating Kentucky teachers’ salaries are at the median – 26th out of the 50 states.

But Shelton contends Kentucky teachers’ pay is not comparable to surrounding states.

There’s a credibility issue with that statement, however, since he and his fellow education-establishment types don’t seem interested in evaluating those same states’ policies that counter their ideology. If Shelton’s going to point to surrounding states regarding teachers’ salaries, will he also support emulating their parental-choice policies?

Will he, for example, support replicating Indiana’s highly competitive education environment, including its myriad public and private school-choice options?

But I digress.

While Kentucky teachers’ salaries rank near the middle, the Census reports the commonwealth’s median household income ranks near the very bottom at No. 47. Incredibly, Ramsey and Shelton both claim the need for “reinvestment” in public education – code for “higher taxes” – even though Kentucky taxpayers’ incomes already are sorely strained in compensating teachers at a national median level.

Shelton to his credit acknowledges that transportation funding and policy – an issue Bevin took on in his budget speech and takes heat for from Shelton’s fellow status-quo defenders – could benefit from “a whole lot of efficiencies.

”Shelton notes that while our more rural districts would feel the impact of state transportation funding cuts for local school districts, “in our more urban and suburban districts, fewer and fewer kids ride a bus.”

Enquiring minds want to know: if fewer students board buses in “urban and suburban districts,” why is it not unusual for Jefferson County Public Schools’ transportation budget to reach $100 million in any given year’s budget?

Defoe’s death-and-taxes line was adapted years later by Margaret Mitchell in her classic “Gone with the Wind.”

“Death, taxes and childbirth!” Mitchell rants. “There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Will there ever be a convenient time for inconvenient truths about the performance and funding of Kentucky’s education system, including what we pay teachers?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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