There’s a big problem with how much teachers are paid, but it’s not because of administrative bloat

Kari Lake is peddling an idea to address Arizona’s teacher shortage — which is on the verge of becoming a crisis — that is built on a lie that is hard-wired into the Republican view of public education.

And it’s a lie designed to allow GOP lawmakers, who have had total control of Arizona’s state government for all but a few fleeting years since 1966, to escape criticism for chronically underfunding our schools.

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Lake has keyed in on a very real problem in education: Teacher pay has remained stagnant since the 1970s, with pay increases basically matching inflation since that time.

“If you look at it and account for inflation, they really haven’t had a pay raise,” she said a speech to supporters, an excerpt of which her campaign posted on Twitter this week.

But the would-be governor is flat wrong about why that is — and what to do about it.

To hear Lake tell it, when her parents were teachers — in the 1960s and ‘70s — they and their colleagues were paid well, unlike teachers today. Why? 

“The money is going to all these administrators. We keep seeing more and more administrators being hired,” she said.

So goes the Republican orthodoxy on education: A massive explosion in school administrative costs and new layers of bureaucracy means new administrators have been hired by the truckload, all at much higher salaries than classroom teachers.

Lake’s populist solution is to bar school districts from paying administrators (except for principals) more than teachers.

Like so many other populist policy goals, this is exceedingly dumb. Managers in almost every profession earn more than the workers they supervise and direct. Schools are no different in that regard than banks or construction companies or factories or restaurants or farms.

But it’s also premised on nonsense. And we have the data to prove that.

Republicans don’t want to look at why Arizona teacher salaries actually rank so poorly. They’d rather knowingly hide behind a lie than acknowledge that the only way to pay teachers more is to give schools more money.

Every year, the Arizona Auditor General analyzes the spending of every school district in the state. This year’s report was published last month, and it puts the lie to the idea that teachers are paid poorly because of administrative bloat.

There’s one single datapoint that shows just how dishonest the claim is: Since 2016, the statewide average change in administrative costs for Arizona school districts was……exactly 0%. Meanwhile, classroom spending increased by 2.8% statewide.

I can hear the Republicans now: “That only shows that administrative growth has stalled. Increased administrative costs lead to lower teacher salaries!”

Except the data shows definitively that isn’t true. There’s absolutely no correlation between how much a school district spends on administration — superintendents, principals, business managers and other clerical staff — and how it pays its teachers. 

I analyzed the administrative costs and teacher salaries for every school district with more than 100 students. (Extremely small districts have disproportionately high administrative costs per student, so they were excluded.) 

Statewide, administration spending averaged 10.4%, or $1,041 per student. And the average teacher in Arizona earned $56,349 in fiscal year 2021, a 16.5% increase over 2017’s average, but short of the 20% goal that Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers set in 2018 when they approved money for pay raises.

But there’s no way to slice the data to back up the notion that districts with higher administration costs — either as a percentage of total spending or in raw per-student dollars — are taking money out of teachers’ pockets.

Take Topock Elementary School District in Mohave County, where administration costs are more than 33%, but teachers earn nearly $63,000 — substantially more than the statewide average. Or look at Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix: Administrative costs are just 8.4%, but teacher pay is below the statewide average and only slightly higher than $52,000. 

There’s a mathematical way to examine the relationship between two sets of data known as regression analysis. In this analysis, I looked at what’s known as R-squared, or the coefficient of determination. Basically, it tells you how much variation is explained by one variable influencing the other. The closer to 0, the less effect the variables have on each other. The closer to 1, the more effect they have.

In this case, we looked to see if increased administrative spending had an effect on teacher pay. It did not. The R-squared was 0.047 when using administrative spending as a percentage and 0.011 when using actual costs per student.

In plain English, that means vanishingly little of the variance between teacher salaries can be attributed to administration costs — between 0.5% and 2.4% of the standard deviation in teacher pay.

Of course, none of this will sway the anti-fact crowd that eats up Lake’s anti-school red meat. Nor will it persuade Republican leaders to actually take a look at why Arizona teacher salaries rank so poorly. They’d rather knowingly hide behind a lie than acknowledge that the only way to pay teachers more is to give schools more money.

It’s really just that simple.

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