The 49th Parallel

How many states can be 49th?  Let us count the ways.

A few years ago, my friend Ben DeGrow noticed that whenever the subject of budget restraint touched on public education, the state teachers union would immediately make one of two claims: either the state was 49th in school spending, or would be after the change was made.

You’ll notice that I declined to name the state in question just now.  That’s because this claim was being made, simultaneously, all over the country by various Education Associations.  Apparently, we are all 49th now.

Nebraska, welcome to the club:

Two of the state’s largest public employee unions gave a hearty thumbs down Monday to a new proposal generated by state business groups to reform the state’s much criticized labor court, the Commission of Industrial Relations.

Officials who represent state K-12 teachers and state employees said the new plan would “eviscerate” collective bargaining and force down public employees’ wages as much as 15 percent.

Karen Kilgarin, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Education Association, said the plan would put Nebraska at 49th in the nation in teachers’ salaries.

First of all, there’s the obvious question of who’s 50th.  I mean, if you’re the least bit skeptical about this claim, you’d think that would be the first thing you’d ask, if only so that you could have a good laugh at their expense when you were filing your story.

More than that, how on earth could Ms. Kilgarin possibly know this?  She has no idea what teacher salaries are like this year in other states, no idea what revenues will look like, or why anyone would ever tolerate a 15% pay cut for teachers.

Right now, according to numbers from the NEA, the AFT, and the NCES, Nebraska ranks 43rd in teacher salaries.  It would take about a 7% cut to drop it past North Dakota into 50th, and the dollar difference between 49th and 50th is so insignificant compared to the difference between 50th and 51st that the only reason for not threatening a drop to 50th is that someone might check the numbers.  After all, 49th sounds so much more believable, and it seems to have been pretty successful rhetoric elsewhere.

In fact, it’s not even that bad, not even close.  Nebraska is a fairly cheap place to live, not 49th, but 45th.  And once you do a little edustat mashup, and divide salaries by the actual cost of living, Nebraska comes in 26th, dead center, meaning that it would take a 20% cut in salaries to drop it to the legendary 49th place.  (Colorado, my home state, comes in 49th 37th.)

Now, you can argue that it’s more expensive to live in Omaha or Lincoln than it is to live in Kearney or Hastings, and you’d be right, to an extent.  Certainly the big ticket item, rent, is lower out in the western 9/10 of the state.  But the population is similarly concentrated in the two big cities, much moreso than in other states, and the cost of living would reflect that concentration as well.  There’s no more sense in throwing all the salaries together than there is in averaging the cost of meat loaf.

In a way, you can’t blame the NSEA for trying.  Calling your state 49th, or soon-to-be 49th, has worked all over the country, and because the press never asks the right questions, and because most people don’t bother to look up the numbers,, they’ve been able to get away with the 49-Card Monty for a long time.  But now, it’s easy enough to compare these things, and the jig should be up.

Fixing the CIR so it better reflects the needs of the taxpayers is just common sense, and there’s no reason to be spooked by math teachers who are counting on their predecessors’ not having done a good enough job for you to know the difference.

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