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Gov. John Bel Edwards’ idea to give across-the-board pay raises to teachers just throws good money after bad. 

The Democrat, campaigning for reelection, wants the fiscal year 2020 budget to include $1,000 permanent hikes to those in the classroom, with more to come in future years. He and other supporters note 2017 average pay in Louisiana of $50,000 annually falls at least $1,500 below the Southern regional average. Further, they argue, although many local districts have implemented increases since then, the state hasn’t lifted pay across all districts in over a decade. 

Not that the state’s teachers suffer from low pay. On average, they make over $3,000 more than the state’s median household income. Adjusting for regional cost-of-living and that teachers typically work only three-quarters of a year, the average compensation comes to the equivalent of about $68,500 annually. 

On teacher pay, Louisiana actually doesn’t lag that much, ranking 34th among the states and midway among those in the Southern region. But Louisiana hasn’t gotten much bang for the buck for this and other education outlays. 

Despite in 2016 having the 28th highest per-pupil expenditures (25th highest in 2015 when adjusted for regional cost differences), on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress exams given in all states, Louisiana students placed 50th in both fourth-grade and eighth-grade math and 48th in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading. Although the state spent more per student than all but three Southern regional states, on only eighth-grade reading did its students outscore any one of the other 15 states. 

And it’s not only poverty to blame. Even with higher proportions of their students participating in reduced-price and free lunch programs designed to assist poorer households, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi students outperformed Louisiana’s and at lower mean cost to their taxpayers. 

Simply and bluntly, too many educators in Louisiana can do better jobs. Indiscriminately shoveling more money at the most critical educational component without requiring better outcomes only perpetuates this failure. 

That's why any pay raises for educators should carry incentives to elicit better teacher performance, as ultimately reflected in higher student achievement. It begins with forgoing a flat increase for all in favor of targeting by area of need and merit. Hiking science and math teacher pay more, for example, draws more and better instructors into those areas facing shortages that produce the worst student outcomes, while giving bigger raises to better teachers keep elite educators in the classroom and nudges others to try to improve.

Other reforms are needed. Children can’t learn well if their instructors haven’t mastered the subject material they teach.

Like some neighboring Southern states, Louisiana should introduce subject area exams and continuing education to obtain and renew a teaching certificate in an area. To teach on a permanent certificate, Florida requires passing at least one of dozens of subject area exams, and again every five years unless teachers perform adequately on additional college coursework in that area. New teachers have up to three years to pass these exams while working under a nonrenewable temporary certificate. 

It doesn’t make sense to pay more for the same substandard thing. Legislators shouldn’t agree to teacher pay raises in any form without passing teacher competency reforms.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.