Education Spending (i.e.- the longest blog ever….)

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This week’s NLJ editorial is actually a condensed version of a rant email I sent to a few friends last week in response to a press release issued by the University of Wyoming claiming that children in Wyoming are suffering because a flood of college professors are leaving UW because we don’t pay them enough. At the same time, I’ve heard from K-12 leaders in other parts of the state who say education isn’t being funded enough here, and I find that hard to believe when you look at education in other states (Wyoming is near the top). My biggest gripe personally is that education leaders should be pressuring legislators on far more important topics- statewide accountability, vocational education, etc.- and shouldn’t put so much energy and effort into asking for more money. I think we’ve got plenty of that in Wyoming (if we don’t then nobody does) but can certainly refine our system and our thinking to produce greater value for children and their families. So, for those who may take issue with my editorial this week, or think that I was in some way bashing teachers (I wasn’t) I would ask that you read the following press release from UW, and what my immediate response to it was. This is probably the longest blog I’ll ever put out there, but I think it’s important for anybody involved or interested in improving education in Wyoming to consider all of these points as we discuss the real challenges facing us- and money is pretty far down that list as far as I’m concerned:

UW Faculty Pay Raises Will Save Money for Wyoming

September 25, 2013 — By Bill Gern
A lack of state funding for employee pay raises over the past four years has resulted in a steady increase in the number of University of Wyoming faculty members leaving for other institutions. Those departures represent an immeasurable loss of expertise, harming the university’s ability to fulfill its land-grant mission of teaching, research and service.
What many members of the public may not realize is that there’s also a measurable impact to Wyoming’s economy when some of UW’s top performers leave for greener pastures. That economic impact should be more than enough reason to take action and help the university stop the loss of its best and brightest through merit-based salary adjustments. In fact, increases in salary for UW employees actually save money. Here’s why.
High-performing professors contribute to Wyoming’s economic growth not only through relevant research and top-notch teaching, but by attracting millions of dollars in research grants every year. During the last fully audited fiscal year, 2012, faculty members at UW received a record $86 million in external funding for research. The vast majority of those dollars came from federal agencies including the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. It’s money that would flow to other states if it didn’t come to Wyoming.
About 60 percent of a typical research grant goes to salaries for people — graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, technicians and undergraduate research assistants — who buy goods and services in the state. Those salaries multiply in the economy to a total impact of about $90 million in a single year. That’s not to mention the economic contributions of successful research projects through industrial applications, spin-out of new businesses and societal improvement.
Simply stated, UW’s research activity is an enterprise zone for the state — a big one. A good number of faculty members actually make money for the state, far beyond their salaries, by attracting research grants from the federal government and industry.
Since 2009 — the last time UW received state funding for employee pay raises — close to 90 faculty members have left. Many were lured away by other institutions or sought employment elsewhere. In almost all cases, those teachers/researchers left for higher-paying jobs. With their departure, about $20 million in active grants was lost — dollars that would have supported jobs in Wyoming had they stayed. The additional secondary economic loss to the state as a result of those faculty departures is around $21 million. What community in Wyoming can stand the loss of a $21 million business?
And while this number is big enough, the departure of high-performing research faculty is far greater because their economic loss to the university and the state is felt for a number of years. It is here that the financial loss becomes great, because it is additive year after year. It takes time for a new faculty member to gain research competitiveness and significant external funding — perhaps a decade. In that intervening decade, Wyoming’s estimated loss is at least $75 million. None of this revenue would have been lost if the original faculty member remained at UW.
And here’s the rub: An average 1 percent pay raise for UW employees costs about $1.8 million annually. If UW had been able to grant 1 percent raises each of the past four years, the total cost would have been $18.2 million — a significant amount of money, but still less than has been lost in direct research grants, and much less than the secondary economic loss, together totaling close to $100 million.
Now, there’s no guarantee that regular pay raises would have allowed UW to retain all faculty members who have left over the past four years. But we could have kept a good number of them. UW might not be able to match every offer that comes from a competing institution, but modest, regular raises to reward successful faculty members go a long way toward retaining them.
The fact is, hiring a new university faculty member is an investment that includes not only the person’s salary, but also start-up costs for laboratories and other expenses. Some of those faculty members, unfortunately, don’t develop into top performers and end up leaving; others flourish and more than pay for their keep with robust research enterprises that take significant effort and time to develop. When we lose professors who are at the top of their game in pulling in research dollars, the state’s investment in developing them ends up benefiting other states and institutions, not Wyoming. And replacing them is difficult and expensive, as start-up costs increase every year.
The situation is similar to professional baseball. An organization makes an investment in a particular player and pays the cost of developing him into a star. That player, in turn, brings value to the franchise through such things as ticket sales, apparel sales and concessions. If the player moves to a different organization when he advances to the big leagues, the investment is lost.
When it comes to university faculty, Wyoming must decide whether UW will be a farm club or play in the major leagues. Over the past decade or so, our elected officials and private donors have helped create major-league facilities at the university with hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time spending — even during times of economic concern. To continue to populate those facilities with the top players in their fields, Wyoming must commit to paying what it takes to recruit, develop and retain them. That’s the only way UW will fully achieve its potential and become the top land-grant institution in the country.
Bill Gern is vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming.

Now on to Bob’s Rant:

First and foremost, education is a “hearts, minds and souls” industry. By that I mean you don’t get into the industry to make money. The true stars in education go into education because they are truly motivated by something greater than money- the desire to give kids the most valuable thing our society can offer, an education. The best teachers in the world, when interviewed, never talk about being inspired to go into the business for a paycheck. They are not professional athletes, and any comparison of that nature is flawed because the most motivated and gifted teachers will all tell you- on some level- that they do what they do because they love children and want to provide them with something that is truly valuable.
In fact, most of them will tell you that they went into the profession because they had a teacher who had an extraordinary impact on them, and entering the profession gave them a way to “give something back” and extend that impact on to the next generation or two.
The other fallacy in this logic is that giving these paycheck chasers a single-digit percentage raise will somehow entice them to stay. You can’t tell me that a one to four percent raise will influence somebody whose primary motivation is money to stay in one place. There will always be somebody who is willing to pay those people more than you are, and if money means that much to them, they will leave when somebody puts a little more of it on the table.
Over the years, I’ve been offered bigger paychecks by a lot of different newspapers, but I’ve told my wife time and again I have no interest in starting the bidding war for my services. The primary reason for that is once you start chasing a paycheck, you never stop. If I take a higher paying job in Powell or Torrington next year, it’s pretty likely that I’ll take the even higher paying job that’s offered to me in Cody, Jackson or Cheyenne a year or two after that. I personally don’t find that kind of life very fulfilling, and think the highest quality teachers wouldn’t either. I’m motivated to stay here- for less money- because I want to see and experience the fruits of my labors, namely a stronger, more vibrant community that I can look on with pride when I am finally ready to hang it up and head out to pasture. I believe the best teachers share that kind of motivation and find the experience of seeing their students succeed, raise their own families, and maybe even teach the children of children they taught 20 years earlier- to be something they value far more than money. Those are the kind of people I want to have working for us.
The third flaw in this reasoning is the assertion that the State of Wyoming has spent all of this money to provide top-notch facilities, and if we won’t pay top-notch salaries, we’re somehow wasting the money we already spent on facilities because we aren’t getting the best bang for the buck out of them. I believe the opportunity to work and teach in top-notch facilities is motivation in and of itself, and would again insist that if there’s a professor or teacher who would rather work in a rundown, outdated facility and make ten percent more money, that probably isn’t the type of person we want to entrust our children’s futures to anyway. If top-notch facilities weren’t a draw for students and faculty, then why didn’t we just pay professors and teachers ten percent more and save ourselves the money we spent on all of these buildings.
All of the arguments presented by WSBA and UW simply come down to a desire to “have their cake and eat it too,” and at the end of the day the only thing that is being accomplished is that the price of education is being driven up exponentially. We all like to complain about inflation, but I’d struggle to find any sector of the economy that can match the rate of inflation we’ve seen in the cost of education (at all levels) in the past few years, with the possible exception of healthcare, and I think we can all agree to the crippling effect that has had on our economy, and society in general- both locally and at the national level.
At the end of the day, improving education is not about money. It simply can’t be. The focus in education (and this is where the Accountability Committee almost got it right at the beginning, but has strayed too far in the three years since) needs to be on maximizing the value of what we’re putting into it already, and you’ll never increase value if you keep increasing cost. You can draw a pretty simple graph to demonstrate that. First draw your cost (input) line, and according to education’s detractors you will draw your quality of education (output) line below that. When those lines meet, you’ve maximized your value, but if you keep increasing the cost line, the output line will never catch up. 
In order to truly increase the benefit to society of the education we provide to young people, we need to increase the value of what we (and UW) offer to all children. You can’t do that by simply looking at test scores alone because test scores- particularly at the secondary level- don’t reflect that which is valuable to all types of students. I think the assessments that do exist are great for students who may at some point seek to improve themselves through a college education, but the ability to post acceptable scores on the ACT by demonstrating a grasp of Algebra II, higher level chemistry or physics, or a fluency in literature and writing that is beyond an 8th grade level, is meaningless to the guy driving the haul truck at the coal mine, welding the pipe in the ditch or checking the pressure gauges at the refinery. Unfortunately, all of the people actively participating in this debate, at levels where changes are being made in education, at some point in their lives decided they wanted to pursue a path that higher level thinking would take them on, and none of us can believe that anybody would ever want to be a haul truck driver, pipe welder or pumper. But we’re wrong. There are people who aspire to no more or less than that, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Thank God this world was blessed with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, but would any of them have been able to accomplish as much if they had to tend their own fields, snake their own drains or mow their own lawns? At the end of the day, society benefits from people who contribute- regardless of what they’re contributing- and the reason we can’t move forward with increasing the VALUE of education is because we’re too focused on demanding maximum value FROM each student, and not producing maximum value FOR each student. 
Believe me folks, those are two entirely different things.

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