Teachers and Recession

March 14, 1991

Should teachers forgo pay raises to ease the budget vise gripping local governments? School supporters and advocacy groups say teachers are moving only now toward the kind of pay they deserve. Slashing increases, they contend, would be a blow to education reform and teacher morale. If local jurisdictions are serious about education, say the unions, it should be funded at any cost.

Cost is the problem. Most local governments are staring at steadily worsening revenue shortfalls and strong citizen opposition to higher taxes. Against this vexing backdrop, shelved raises, furloughs and even layoffs become options. Teachers are hardly alone. Other government workers, too, have been asked to forgo pay increases.

Few would quarrel with the notion that teachers provide an important service or that the group has been paid too little for too long. Yet educators in many counties have benefited from the recent push to reverse this. Annual hikes in teacher salaries have averaged 10 percent in some counties, double inflation and way ahead of increases for other government workers.

This reflects the need to reward teachers and to make the profession more competitive. But holding teachers harmless in the current round of budget cuts is going too far. County executives, as they must, are trying to handle this crisis responsibly and fairly. The elitist argument that teachers, because of what they do, are somehow better than other government workers is not only unfair, but has backfired.

Partially in response to the fear that school boards would use state-mandated increases in school budgets to fund higher teacher salaries, legislators are considering suspending the requirement to maintain per-pupil spending. Union leaders are calling this a "state grab for control" of local affairs that will immeasurably harm students. Yet many of these unions are willing to sacrifice education programs in favor of higher teacher salaries.

It's time teacher unions, like their counterparts in other areas of government, faced the unpleasant but intractable realities of budget cuts and recession. Granted, the notion of foregoing previously negotiated pay hikes is unpalatable. These contracts, however, are contingent on funding ability, a point too often lost in the debate. In the end, deferring increases will cause less pain than layoffs and the resulting increase in class sizes.

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