Trillhaase’s head fake avoids the truth about career ladder

Fred Birnbaum Education Leave a Comment

I have to hand it to the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s longtime foe, Marty Trillhaase. The liberal columnist is a master of the head fake.

Let’s roll back the tape to reveal Trillhaase’s almost-brilliant deception, a sly trick he used to dodge a serious discussion that the Idaho Freedom Foundation wants to have about the state’s education system.

In his recent Lewiston Tribune piece about us, Trillhaase didn’t push back against the fact that Idaho’s infamous career ladder scheme offers little accountability and that teachers — regardless of their effectiveness — are largely paid based on education level and years in the classroom.

Trillhaase didn’t want to punch against that argument. Or, more accurately, he couldn’t — because it’s true.

The career ladder, for all the good some people think it’s doing, does nothing to ensure that educators and schools are held accountable for student success in the classroom. Less competent teachers are paid the same as excellent educators, and that’s unconscionable.

Instead, Trillhaase returned again to some harsh criticism IFF leveled against government schools. Trillhaase can certainly highlight IFF’s opinion, but he needs to move on. With IFF’s latest report, “Broken Ladder,” we are observing the career ladder situation as it is and suggesting improvements that will lead to better education outcomes for students.

IFF understands that progress is incremental and our vision for education, wherein families initiate the type of learning that works for their own students, will take years to achieve. Teacher unions have made it so that fighting the status quo — the 19th-century learning model — is an uphill battle. Still, we’re up for that fight.

Part of that fight is ensuring that school spending is transparent and easy to understand for the decision-makers. Solid data make for solid decisions, and up until IFF’s release of the “Broken Ladder” report, lawmakers and task force members were working with stunningly incomplete data.

Just what does the state’s own data say?

Trillhaase claims teachers are leaving Idaho schools in droves. He’s wrong. According to a recent Idaho teacher pipeline report, only 6 percent of teachers in the 50- to 54-year-old age bracket, 6 percent in the 45- to 49-year-old age bracket, 6 percent in the 40- to 44-year-old age bracket, and 8 percent in the 35- to 39-year-old bracket leave public schools, using the average of the last four years.

The state board figure that Trillhaase touts is the overall average of 10 percent, which includes very young teachers with no prior experience.

Next, the data show veteran teachers are reasonably compensated. IFF research reveals that the average veteran teacher already earns more than $62,000 annually. This is already actually higher than a new pay level, or rung, that the Education Task Force wants to add to the career ladder.

Keep in mind teachers enjoy competitive health benefits, along with a guaranteed, enviable retirement package. The average teacher’s contract is for about 37 weeks of teaching per year.

I must note that these salary figures, which IFF derived from more than 15,000 teacher pay records, are base pay only. These numbers don’t include extended contracts, leadership premiums or other salary enhancements.

To be sure, there are outliers in the data. Boise’s veteran teachers earn, on average, $71,000 annually. Blaine School District’s veteran teachers earning, on average, $86,000 a year. On the low end, Sugar-Salem School District pays its veteran teachers $49,000 a year. Simply adding another rung to the career ladder won’t close the urban-rural divide, either.

Teacher pay is a hot-button issue, and it should be.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation believes, without reservation, that as long as the state has a system of government schools, high-performing educators should earn as much as the state and local districts can reasonably pay them. Teachers who transform, enlighten, and inspire students should be rewarded for their efforts and passion.

Unfortunately, the career ladder, with its absurdly complex structure, doesn’t move Idaho closer to that goal. Instead, it muddies the water and delivers a mirage of accountability.

Repealing the career ladder and replacing it with a pay system that doesn’t take a 90-page guidebook to decipher, and rewards the best educators, is the right thing to do for our students.

And that’s no head fake.

Note: The Lewiston Tribune first published this column on Oct. 2, 2019. Click here to see that post.