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California shouldn’t spend more on K-12 schools without any reform

Would large pay increases for teachers and other workers improve K-12 education in California? Perhaps. But only if the overall system is improved and reformed.

That’s the key to looking at Assembly Bill 938, by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, chair of the Assembly Education Committee. In the bill’s language, it would establish “aspirational funding levels” of pay for teachers and other school staff 50% higher than those today by fiscal year 2030-31 “to support local educational agencies’ efforts to improve recruitment and retention of school site staff and improve educational opportunities for pupils.”

The goals are aspirational because a current Legislature cannot constrain the actions of a future Legislature. Practically, the increases, with compound interest, would amount to 6% yearly.

The aspirational increase is similar to the 21% increase the Los Angeles Unified School District last month granted its teachers over three years, but would be applied statewide.

The analysis of AB 938 by the Education Committee notes, “Research indicates that teachers earn 23.5% less than comparable college graduates … Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers have been relatively flat since 1996.” The current salary number is $1,348 (in 2021 dollars), or $70,096 a year, plus retirement, medical and other benefits.

The first problem is the state currently funds K-12 education to the tune of $23,723 per pupil, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s January budget proposal for fiscal year 2023-24, which begins on July 1. That’s $593,075 for a class of 25 students. If average pay for the teachers is $70,096 a year, then where is the rest of the money going?

Second is a problem brought up to us by Lance Christensen, vice president of education policy and government affairs at the California Policy Center and a 2022 candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. “I’m happy to pay teachers more,” he said. “But let’s tie it to some sort of metric of competency, to make sure we’re not just throwing good money after bad.”

Indeed, last October the state Department of Education reported statewide test scores on the 2022 Smarter Balanced assessment dropped during the pandemic. In English Language Arts, those exceeding standards went from 51% in 2018 to 47% in 2022. Worse, math scores went from 40% to 33%.  However one breaks down the numbers, they don’t reflect well on our K-12 system and they speak of widespread failure in ensuring young Californians have the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

Christensen said reforms should begin with making it easier to get teaching credentials, currently a process taking a year and a half. This would include speeding up credentialing for teachers from other states and retired college professors. Teachers who deliver better results should be rewarded for their efforts. And getting tenure should be extended from the current two years to at least three years to weed out bad teachers early, as now California Secretary of State Shirley Weber proposed as an assemblymember and as is the norm in the rest of the country.

Especially as a major deficit now is hitting the state budget, throwing more money into a troubled system is a recipe only for more expensive failure.

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