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Few people will disagree that the best school teachers are often paid less than they deserve. But even fewer people agree when it comes to figuring out what to do about the situation.

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, suggests simply that salaries for all teachers be raised legislatively to the same level as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. "Low salaries prevent quality people from both entering and staying in the profession," she argues. Feldman further notes that new college graduates, as well as veteran teachers, are being lured to other professions with lucrative salary offers while the teaching profession languishes.

She's right. But is the answer to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers as simple as increasing salaries? The problem with solutions like Feldman's is that they would require crippling infusions of taxpayer dollars, to the tune of more than $2 billion per year in Michigan alone.

There is a better way for teachers to make the kind of money they are worth and even to make teaching, as a profession, attractive enough for top young college graduates to gravitate toward it again. But it will require a complete re-orientation of the profession.

Teaching—unlike other white-collar occupations—is one of the few professions where salaries have little or nothing to do with competency, demand, or performance. Public school teachers are paid according to a union-negotiated, one-size-fits-all, seniority-based salary schedule. This means that high-performing teachers are paid the same as mediocre or incompetent teachers.

Pay will become equitable for educators only when the teaching profession becomes competitive like other careers. But first, enterprising educators must be given opportunities to teach beyond the traditional school setting. In short, they must have choices.

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can practice their profession in variety of ways. They can be employed by organizations, they can partner with others, or they can work for themselves in private practice. School teachers lack such essential professional choices.

Traditionally, teachers must enter their profession as employees of schools or school districts. Many qualified teachers leave the profession in order to pursue more autonomous or financially rewarding careers. Other potential teachers never consider entering the profession due to the lack of opportunities for professional development and advancement.

The teaching profession must allow educators the flexibility to work for themselves or the freedom to collaborate with others. They must be able to negotiate their own salaries and establish their own value in the education marketplace.

What if teachers were allowed more professional choices? What would this new education economy look like?

First of all, freeing teachers from seniority-based pay scales would force schools to directly compete with each other to attract and retain good teachers. Administrators would need to provide appropriate financial rewards to teachers who excel or risk losing them to a competing school. Mediocre or incompetent teachers would be forced to improve their skills or choose another line of work. These changes would bring the teaching profession into line with other professional occupations.

Educators with excellent skills also would recognize that, due to their market value outside the traditional school setting, they may be better off going into private practice on their own or partnering with like-minded educators, and contracting their services to the highest bidder.

Public school districts have long benefited from contracting out for services like transportation, food services, and building maintenance. Why not contract for instructional services in a similar way? Such opportunities for teachers could create a new breed of "educator-entrepreneur." This is already happening to some extent in private and charter schools, but the current system by and large smothers or prevents these opportunities from flourishing.

If the best teachers are to earn a salary that more justly reflects their talents and abilities, instead of being paid the same as poorly performing teachers, then the same incentives that drive continuous improvement and innovation among doctors, lawyers, and engineers must be brought to bear on the teaching profession.

There is no question that increasing teachers' salaries is key to attracting and retaining more high-quality educators in our schools. But greater freedom and professional choice for teachers, not expensive tax hikes on citizens, is the best way to accomplish that goal.

by Matthew J. Brouillette

Former teacher Matthew Brouillette is director of education policy with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.