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Other Views: Pay teachers in hard-to-find specialties more

There are problems that defy solutions. There are problems in search of solutions.

Then there are problems that would seem to have obvious solutions, if only the people in charge could garner enough support and muster the needed will. And the challenge of drawing applicants for hard-to-fill teacher vacancies seems like an “obvious solution” problem (“Small schools struggle to hire,” Page A10, April 25).

Imagine you’re the superintendent of a small school district and are looking for a teacher who could teach both English and a foreign language. (Finding candidates who can teach across two subject areas can be very difficult, especially in rural schools, the story reported.)

Now, think of the issue this way: If you could offer a salary of a million dollars a year, would you have trouble finding qualified candidates?

Obviously not. Applications would pour in, probably from all 50 states.

Of course, most rural schools can’t offer a million dollars a year.

But the example makes the district’s real problem clear. If the position’s advertised salary is attracting zero applicants, and a million-dollar-a-year salary likely would draw thousands of applicants, then the solution lies somewhere in between.

So, the next question is this: What’s the lowest salary-and-benefits package that would attract a decent number of qualified applicants?

And once you’ve come up with that answer, then what factors are preventing the district from offering that wage?

The latter question usually is the tougher one. That’s because nationwide, some 70 percent of school districts have single-salary labor contracts, which prohibit paying teachers in hard-to-find specialties (such as math and special ed) more than other teachers get.

Many universities use “differential pay.” In other words, engineering and business-school professors — whose skills and credentials are in high demand in the private sector — get paid more than do history and English professors, whose private-sector options are more limited.

But only about 15 states have laws that support this practice in K-12 schools. And North Dakota and Minnesota aren’t among them.

For example, “North Dakota neither supports differential pay by which a teacher can earn additional compensation by teaching certain subjects nor offers incentives to teach in high-need schools,” the National Council on Teacher Quality reports.

“However, the state has no regulatory language that would directly block districts from providing differential pay.”

By the way, while the NCTQ tends to favor conservative education reforms, differential pay is not just a conservative cause. “State policy should encourage districts to develop and pilot test alternative salary schedules,” the liberal Center for American Progress recommended in a 2007 report.

“Policymakers, researchers and practitioners agree that the single salary schedule is ineffective, but few districts are testing alternatives as part of their differential pay policies.

“State policy should encourage and certainly not prevent districts from experimenting with alternatives to the single salary schedule.”

If school districts in North Dakota and Minnesota are having trouble filling positions in certain specialties, then it’s time for those districts to bring differential pay to the collective bargaining table.

Local school boards should study the proposals that have worked in other states, then refine them for local conditions, build support among key constituencies (including teachers) and give them a try.