by Rachel McPherson

This past spring, thousands of Arizona educators marched on the State Capitol, expressing frustration over teacher pay. But what do the data on teacher compensation in the state really tell us?

Goldwater Institute President and CEO Victor Riches explains in a new edition of the Cato Institute Daily Podcast that complaints about teacher pay are misdirected. “The reality is that [teachers were] marching on the wrong place. At least in Arizona, the legislature and the governor do not set teacher pay—it’s the school districts themselves that set teacher pay,” explains Riches. Differences in pay are frequently attributable to the emphasis each separate school district places on teacher salaries or to the district’s efficiency—or inefficiency—in managing other non-instruction-related costs compared to their peers.

Furthermore, he says, the claim that Arizona teachers are poorly paid simply does not hold up: The data show that “the average teacher pay in Arizona is right in line with the average salary in Arizona.” The belief that teachers are underpaid and schools are underfunded stems from what Riches calls an “antiquated” funding model. This decades-old model hearkens back to a time when the nation was more rural and school districts were responsible for only a handful of children. Now, the explosion of school districts has led to hundreds of thousands of lost taxpayer dollars due to administrative waste.

In Arizona, “we spend $10 billion per year on K-12 funding to educate roughly 1 million students. $10,000 per student is certainly not underfunding—it’s more than enough,” Riches points out. As the country becomes more densely populated, there is no need for states to have excessive numbers of school districts that inevitably lead to lost tax dollars that could be better spent in the classroom.

So where should we focus efforts in order to truly improve student outcomes? Riches looks to charter schools and open enrollment—allowing students to go to a public school in another district that better meets their needs—as important parts of the solution. Giving parents more of a say in their child’s education is not just good for students—it’s good for teachers, too. “There’s data from around the country that indicates that teacher salaries actually go up in places that have more school choice because it creates market competition that otherwise wouldn’t exist,” Riches says.

To listen to the full podcast, click here.

Rachel McPherson is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.