According to a Texas economist who has studied Washington’s labor market, teachers in the Evergreen State – except for those in the greater Puget Sound area – are well compensated compared to non-educators.

“In many parts of the state, teacher is a position that pays better than you’d expect for a person with a college degree,” said Lori Taylor, the State’s main witness on Wednesday in the trial over education funding. She is an associate professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in education finance.

Taylor took issue with what was described as previous testimony contending that all Washington’s teachers should earn as much as those in the high-cost Seattle area, if not as much as the state’s highest-paid educators in the Everett School District. She said the idea that “teachers in the low-cost part of the state should be paid the same as those in the greater Seattle metropolitan area is – I don’t know how to say this diplomatically – kind of absurd.”

Teacher compensation is “good relative to non-teachers (for 10 months of work), even at the current level, much less if you took it up to the Everett level,” said Taylor, adding that if all educators were paid like Everett teachers, “people would be fighting tooth and nail” to get hired.

Day 22 of the trial also featured testimony about site visits to selected school districts by other State witnesses. But the main topic was teacher compensation as analyzed by Taylor, who had earlier written a report for the Basic Education Finance Task Force, the group created by the 2007 Legislature to study whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to amply fund education for all children.

Taylor said three main factors affect wage levels: worker characteristics, the task needed to be done, and the job location. She tried to determine the part of compensation attributable to location, where desirability and cost of living come into play. In other words, “if you took the same résumé to every school district, what would you expect to command” in compensation, she said.

Taylor also made adjustments in her pay calculations to compare 10-month teaching jobs with 12-month non-educator positions. On average, she said, Washington teachers make about $54,000 annually and “compare very favorably” with the $56,000 earned by non-educators, with large labor markets driving both figures. “Teaching is a really good job,” she told Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw.

The major difference is pay for math and science teachers, who earn “less than 85 percent of the prevailing wage in all Washington metropolitan areas” for non-educators in the math and science professions, Taylor said.

During his cross-examination of Taylor, Edmund Robb, attorney for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, noted that Taylor’s research for the Basic Education Finance Task Force showed a beginning teaching salary of $42,374 annually in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metropolitan area. Robb pointed out that the State’s base salary allocation for beginning teachers, who Taylor defined as those with three years or less experience, is considerably less – about $33,000 – meaning the difference is paid by local or federal dollars. Taylor did not find the source of funding meaningful for her analysis.

“I don’t think base pay is at all relevant to salaries that teachers take home,” she said. Asked by Robb what would happen if all Washington beginning teachers were paid about $33,000, or just the State’s allocation, Taylor said that “it’d be hard to recruit teachers.”

Robb also noted that the prevailing salary for all teachers in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metropolitan area is $56,278, according to Taylor’s research, nearly $15,000 less than the $71,132 earned by non-educators in the same region.

Judge John Erlick asked Taylor about a portion of her task force report that said the gross pay for Washington teachers in 2007-08 exceeded their base salaries by more than $7,900 per educator. Using Taylor’s calculation model, he said that if the base contract is paid by the State, then nearly 70 percent of the compensation beyond that, or $5,400, would be for “instructional activities not funded by the State, in my hypothesis.” Replied Taylor: “I believe so.”

Taylor also found fault with the State’s current practice of increasing teacher pay based on education and experience, telling the judge that there was “nothing to suggest that additional years makes you any more effective in the classroom.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Eldon Lonborg, former superintendent in the Oakville School District, completed his testimony about site visits to the Battle Ground, Bethel, Clover Park, Colville and Mount Adams school districts. Those are five of the 13 representative Washington districts that are under examination in the trial.

Lonborg, who was paid $50,000 by the State for his services, said that overall, “I did not see any (schools) where students couldn’t receive a proper education.” He generally said that facilities in the nearly 40 schools and 230 classrooms he visited were “very nice” and “well maintained.” Aside from a “cantankerous” furnace in one district and the loss of Internet connections in two classrooms, he said he found few problems.

The Mount Adams district near Yakima, where two-thirds of the students are Native Americans, has WASL scores “at the bottom” and expenditures “at the top” among the 13 representative districts, Lonborg said. The district spends $13,378 per student and has “the most tired facilities I visited,” he said.

When the judge asked whether districts with a large population of Native American students might have additional problems, Eldon identified several issues. Lonborg said alcoholism is a problem among Native American families and cultural traditions, such as late summer powwows, take students out of school. “The superintendent told me that as far as he was concerned, the WASL is inappropriate for Native Americans. I do not believe that,” he testified.

Lonborg said facilities in the Colville district were “generally very good,” conflicting with prior testimony by Colville Superintendent Ken Emmert, who had described extensive water-related problems.

Under cross-examination from NEWS attorney Chris Emch, Lonborg said he did not know the source of funding for much of the equipment or supplies he saw in classrooms. For computers and textbooks, the funding could have been “local, community, teacher, bake sale?” he asked. That is correct, Lonborg said. He also told Emch that he had not evaluated the efficiencies of any schools or the cycle of textbook purchases, among other matters.

Judge Erlick asked Lonborg whether the federal government paid any compensation to the Clover Park district because it served the families of military personnel. Lonborg said the district was eligible for federal impact funding.

Regarding the Mount Adams district, the judge wondered about low achievement levels, setting aside the matter of poverty. Lonborg reiterated that WASL standards were appropriate for the district, where Native American students undergo “an enormous cultural change,” he said. He said staffing levels were high and more money was not necessarily the answer. The district is “a work in progress,” he said, and “we’re not giving up.”

Coming up on Thursday: Rick Melmer, dean of education at the University of South Dakota and that state’s former secretary of education, will resume his testimony.

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