By William Mattox
It was a brouhaha that left many students and parents in Florida’s capital city without a beloved principal. But for folks well beyond Tallahassee — and even Florida — it ought to serve as a wake-up call for re-thinking our society’s upside-down patterns in compensating educators.
Here’s what happened: On the Friday before Independence Day, the local school superintendent announced Leon High School principal Rocky Hanna had been “promoted” to a district office administrative role. The news startled almost everyone, including Hanna, and evoked an immediate firestorm.
Angry parents and students organized a rally to protest the move. The local newspaper – and many prominent residents – urged the superintendent to rethink his decision. Recent graduates wrote articles and letters describing how Hanna belonged at Leon High, “not at some district office desk job.”
To be sure, Hanna seemed perfectly suited for his position as principal of Florida’s oldest public high school. He is a graduate of Leon High, part of a family with deep roots at the school, and an inspirational leader who enthusiastically celebrated his students’ achievements in the classroom, on the athletic field and in the performing arts.
In addition, Hanna distinguished himself by giving special attention to an often-overlooked population: “regular” students who are neither high achievers nor potential dropouts. Moreover, Hanna won plaudits for pulling often-hilarious stunts to rally Leon students to participate in various community service projects.
So, why did Leon County school superintendent Jackie Pons pluck this popular principal from a position that fit him like a glove? Pons said he needed Hanna in the district office to fill one of several openings caused by recent retirements. While this explanation failed to satisfy some Leon High loyalists, all I know is that this job change never would have happened had Hanna’s move not been a “promotion” to a higher-paying position.
Which begs a larger question: why are compensation patterns in education so upside down? Why do we typically compensate great teachers and great principals less than district office supervisors whose administrative skills, while valuable, are often less central to education’s primary task?
Can anyone imagine the owner of the Miami Heat announcing that LeBron James has done such an outstanding job leading his team to the NBA championship that he is being “promoted” to a front-office job?
Can anyone imagine the University of Alabama president announcing that Nick Saban has done such a good job winning football national championships that he is being “promoted” to a senior administrative position in the Crimson Tides’ athletic department?
The reason these scenarios are so unimaginable is because compensation patterns in the world of sports are guided largely by market forces. Stars get paid like stars. Role players get paid like role players. Top administrators earn a lot, but they rarely make more than the stars they oversee. The stars are at the center of the action, where high performance is most prized – and where differences in quality affects outcomes the most.
Thankfully, the Florida Legislature has taken steps in recent years to introduce performance-based pay into the education sector. Sadly, its efforts have been strongly resisted by the union officials that claim to represent Florida’s teachers.
This begs another question: Why do the union officials who negotiate on behalf of teachers make dramatically more money than the teachers themselves? Most Hollywood agents make only a fraction of the stars they represent. Yet according to recent Labor Department filings, the head of the National Education Association currently makes $362,644. The head of the American Federation of Teachers pulls down $407,323 a year. Here in Florida, more than half the Florida Education Association’s employees have six-figure compensation packages.
Meanwhile, the average Florida teacher earns less than $50,000 a year – even if she’s a star.
Clearly, it’s time to rethink compensation in education. We need more performance-based pay to reward great teachers – and to prevent great principals from being “promoted” to desk jobs that take them away from the students they inspire. That, at least, seems to be the lesson from the recent brouhaha in Tallahassee.
William Mattox is a columnist with Florida Voices and a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.