A recent study released by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reported that the average annual salary for Michigan teachers is the second highest in the country. That’s before adjusting for differences between the states in the cost of living. At $52,497 for a nine and one-half month work year, only the salaries of teachers in high-priced California exceed Michigan’s average teacher salary. However, when adjusted for California’s 30 percent higher cost of living, the average salary for teachers in Michigan actually surpasses that of its west coast counterparts and ranks second in the nation only to Pennsylvania. In fact, Michigan’s average salary for teachers is more than $8,000 higher than the national average.

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America’s teachers’ unions, the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) would have those who underwrite these higher salaries — the taxpaying public — believe that higher teacher salaries produce better student performance. But the truth is that Michigan’s outstanding compensation for teachers has not produced acceptable levels of student performance, a conclusion that is validated in numerous ways. One example is the fact that approximately half of all the tests administered to students every year under the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) are failed.

Another example is the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card. The recently published 2002 results for reading skills for Michigan 4th and 8th grade students continue to be stunningly inadequate: 71 percent of 4th graders and 68 percent of 8th graders cannot read at their respective grade levels. For minority students the achievement gap is a chasm — with almost nine out of ten black students not possessing adequate reading skills.

The contrast between high teacher compensation and low student performance once again demonstrates the truth of a Mackinac Center for Public Policy axiom: more dollars do not produce more scholars. So why do salaries continue to rise in the absence of demonstrable student achievement? The answer is the teachers’ unions.

The AFT, the second largest teachers’ union in the country and its super-sized sister organization the NEA have, as stated by Education Week, “many resources at their disposal to try to shape education policy.” And “shape” policy they do, if one may correctly refer to their politicizing of educational issues (such as standardized testing) and pushing for endless salary increases as “shaping.” Having been granted near monopoly powers of collective bargaining, the unions have long controlled virtually every aspect of the public school system — which is itself a state-funded monopoly.

This “monopoly on top of a monopoly,” a term coined by author Peter Brimelow in his new book, “The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education,” is — more than any other single reason — why meaningful systemic improvement has not come to K-12 education. In a nutshell, the unions’ political muscle has taxpayers in a monetary headlock, giving the school system little incentive to reform. As such, the public school system is no longer accountable to parents. The “public” in public education has all but been rendered meaningless.

Teachers are not the only factor responsible for poor student performance. But as long as the unions preserve their ability to continue raising teacher salaries without having to demonstrate measurable improvements in student achievement, the higher salaries are not likely to prevent student failure.

The best way to restore our schools’ accountability to the public is to reintroduce the incentive principle by giving all parents the power to choose the best and safest schools for their children. Incentives in the form of more charter schools, tuition tax credits and similar proposals force schools to compete for students. School choice also exerts upward pressure on demand for good teachers and the wages they deserve. Research demonstrates that competition is the most reliable mechanism for improving student performance.

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Brian Carpenter, a former independent school superintendent, is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the author of a recent article on school marketing for the National Charter School Clearinghouse Review.