ImageAn old saw goes: “Never mention rope in the house of a man who has been hanged.” A new one goes: “Never mention merit pay to public school teachers” (unless you want to get hanged).

Presidential candidate Barak Obama disregarded the second of those admonitions on July 5, in Philadelphia, when he addressed 9,000+ teachers at the convention of the National Education Association – America’s largest teachers’ union. New to these dangerous waters, Mr. Obama drew only stony silence when he said he was “open” to performance-pay for teachers. But he saved the day (and probably his political hide) with a ringing declaration that public education is “under-funded”. Teachers stood and cheered this hoary line (first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls) as well as Obama’s tag-line of wanting to “fix” the No Child Left Behind Act. (Remeber, “fix” is another word for emasculation.) NCLB has been massively unpopular with public school teachers because it demands actual progress from poorly performing schools receiving federal monies.

The under-funding claim is particularly rich in the context of a recent change of public school administration in the District of Columbia, where a new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, 37, has been hired to “turn things around”. 30 new DC superintendents in the last 30 years have been brought in for the identical purpose. (OK, maybe I exaggerate a little, but not about “turning things around”. DC schools are the worst in the nation.) Dr. Rhee’s immediate staff of 13 will include eight administrators earning over $100,000 a year – two of them over $200,000. Dr. Rhee, herself, will receive $275,000 a year, plus a “signing bonus” of $41,000.

Dr. Rhee’s salary is more than the DC mayor’s ($145,000); more than a congressman’s ($162,100) or a federal cabinet officer’s ($183,500) or the vice president’s ($208,000); more than the Supreme Court Chief Justice’s ($212,000) and not far from the president’s ($400,000). This is not bad pay for coming in brand new – not having done a thing yet – even if it is to a city whose teachers are the highest paid in the nation. Having only 600,000 residents, DC spends $15,000 per pupil, annually – second only to New York. (I only wonder why they kept the chancellor’s salary under $1 million. Why skimp when it’s “for the children”?)

Obviously, “merit pay” is not yet operative in Washington, DC, schools. If it were, the new school-boss and her staff would be paid 1/10 of their stated salaries, with large incentive bonuses added for achieving defined, measurable goals – i.e., more than merely “signing” a contract. (Of course, I agree that just showing up to try to run DC schools should be worth big bucks.)

Many businesses pay CEOs and other executives conditionally. Those large compensation packages pundits and politicians love to cluck-cluck about are usually bonuses awarded for success, not salary. If managers don’t reach certain objectives, they don’t get those big bucks.

Even stock options – perhaps the executive compensation least understood by reporters, educators, and civil serpents – are “performance” compensation. A CEO starts work when the company’s stock is selling at, say, 100. His compensation might include “options” on 100,000 shares. After the exercise date, he can buy those option shares at 100 – then keep them, or sell at the current price. If the price is now 150, he makes a profit of $5,000,000 by selling. But if the price has gone below 100 – meaning that he has not really grown the business – his options are not worth exercising. That part of his compensation package is worth zilch.

Educators labor under no such compensation discipline, and they have no intention of doing so. For them, failure usually produces more funding, not less. As Barak Obama will learn – if he hasn’t learned it already from his staff – the only kind of “merit pay” teachers will accept is a plan that defines nearly every teacher as a superior performer eligible for higher pay. Any plan linking pay to objective measures of student performance is completely out of the question. The NEA and other unions will never countenance it.

Mr. Obama might genuinely seek common ground with educators to improve public education, but he is naïve about the cooperation of teachers’ unions. They are wholly preoccupied with teachers’ compensation, benefits and jobs, and only marginally concerned with the education, performance, and futures of students. My authority on this is the late Albert Shanker – long-time labor activist and president of the United Federation of Teachers – who once brazenly said he would start paying attention to students when they started paying union dues.

A true merit-pay system for teachers and administrators would do more for public schools and their pupils than a battalion of megabucks chancellors. The merit-compensation model used by business is very strong. Teacher-resistance aside, education’s problem with the model is identifying proper goals and measuring success. In business, such goals are usually financial; success is unambiguous.

In education, goals and reliable measures do not come readily to hand. Graduation rates and student academic progress (gauged by standardized tests) are two performance-measures required by the NCLB act. Naturally, educators have raised a huge stink over them – possibly excepting in places that have actually achieved progress.

Some states and districts have been found “gaming” graduation statistics by lowering their standards so more students “graduate”, or by eliminating some students from the count so their “rate” seems higher. Administrators also complain that the NCLB mandate was “unfunded” – meaning that extra money was not furnished to meet goals that (in this observer’s view) should have been pursued all along. If you’re not in the (education) business to improve students and help them graduate, exactly what is your objective?

Educators act as though the accountability demanded by NCLB is just a temporary anomaly, and that things will return to “normal” if they can just put a Democrat in the White House. Maybe so, but they shouldn’t count on it. The Social Welfare community thought Bill Clinton would sweep away twelve years of Reaganism and usher in welfare’s golden age when he took office. Instead, he signed landmark welfare reform, designed by a Republican Congress, to get re-elected. A Democratic president might face the same music on education. Such things are unpredictable.

What is predictable is that the public will not indefinitely endure an unaccountable, poorly performing public education system staffed by administrators making more than cabinet officers, chief justices, and congressmen. We are waaay overdue for reform. It’s just a question of when it will come. Hopefully soon.