To the editor:
An op-ed piece entitled "Ventura wrestles education" was recently reprinted by the Journal-World. I want to address its claim that public K-12 education is an overfunded bureaucracy.
State estimates indicate that 72.5 percent of Kansas' K-12 education budget is spent on teacher salaries. Does this mean that teacher salaries are too high? No! Coyla Ezell's letter to the editor on April 10 illustrated that teacher salaries and benefits in Kansas are often uncompetitive with those offered by other states.
Our state is beginning to experience the impact of a nationwide crisis in the supply of qualified teachers. The number of full-time teaching jobs in Kansas vacant on the first day of school swelled from about 140 in 1999 to over 400 in 2000.
Based on average teacher salaries nationwide, the shortage of qualified teachers will continue. Teachers in their 20s with bachelor's degrees earn an average of 38 percent less than their contemporaries working in other fields. Low salary is cited as a top reason that talented teachers leave the teaching profession. As many as half of all new teachers leave the education profession within their first five years. We cannot determine how many students never consider teaching careers because of low salaries.
Ironically, the op-ed piece criticized K-12 education for being out of touch with thinking in the "private sector." This "private sector" argument applies directly to the attitude the op-ed piece took toward teachers. CEOs would be dismissed for setting salary structures so low that they cannot attract key employees. Furthermore, CEOs must invest in the professional advancement of valued employees or see them lured away by other opportunities.
Is there some waste in the public schools and do some teachers underperform? Undoubtedly. Can the public education system be improved? Certainly. But these problems exist in an environment in which teachers are chronically underpaid and often work in disheartening conditions. Teacher quality is the single most reliable predictor of student performance. If we are serious about improving public education, let's commit to paying salaries that will attract and retain the highest quality teachers.