Brenda is ideally placed to make the case for higher teacher pay. He teaches at Rockcastle County High School, in the heart of Appalachia, one of America’s poorest, most deprived regions, and he is by all accounts a credit to his profession. If there is a case for boosting teacher pay, surely it is strongest in communities like Brenda’s, which often struggle to find dedicated, high-quality professionals who might otherwise find more lucrative work. This, to my mind, is one of the more frustrating aspects of the teacher-pay debate. As a political matter, it makes sense for public-school teachers to present a united front, as if every single one of them is justly and equally aggrieved.
But that is simply not the case. Like all professionals, public-school teachers choose where to work on the basis of a number of factors, including student quality and other non-pecuniary characteristics. Simply put, most teachers find it more appealing to teach affluent students from stable homes than their disadvantaged peers, and they are often willing to accept less compensation in exchange for more congenial working conditions. (Indeed, the most effective way to improve educational outcomes in America might be to pursue policies that raise parental incomes.) One can believe that teacher pay should be high enough to attract and retain high-quality teachers while acknowledging that this will likely mean increasing teacher pay more for, say, Travis Brenda than for his counterpart at a public school in a well-off suburb. Or it could mean boosting starting salaries and raises during the early part of a teacher’s career, when their effectiveness increases most, while enrolling these new recruits in more sustainable retirement plans. By opposing pension reform, Brenda and his allies diminish the prospects for such a compromise, to the detriment of future teachers and students alike.
Still more vexing is the tension between Brenda’s opposition to pension reform, the chief motivation behind his primary challenge, and his opposition to broad-based state tax increases. Throughout his primary campaign, he criticized the Kentucky legislature for broadening the state sales tax to cover a wide array of services, on the grounds that they ought to have instead raised taxes on the wealthy. Again, the political logic of this stance is impeccable. Most voters, including many Republican voters, are amenable to the idea of making the tax burden more steeply progressive. The trouble is that Kentucky doesn’t have many rich people to squeeze.
Whereas cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are home to entrenched economic agglomerations that keep high-income professionals tethered to them, even in the face of heavy taxation, Kentucky finds itself in a less favorable position. The state is not home to the central nervous system of the global financial system, or the sprawling capital of the mightiest republic the world has ever known. Silicon Valley did not take root in Kentucky’s rolling hills. Before you blame Kentuckians for having failed to convince Stanford University to relocate to Bowling Green, note that economic agglomerations typically take decades to emerge. They are built on cumulative advantages, not unlike those setting apart a wealthy Mayflower descendant from the offspring of a family that has been poor for generations. Los Angeles might be in a position to hike taxes on its rich residents. Where else will its armies of creative entrepreneurs be able to rub shoulders with their peers? Where else will they have access to the cultural amenities that are a product of its density? And lest we forget, the city’s Mediterranean climate can’t be beat. The same isn’t as true of Louisville or Lexington, beautiful cities that, for all their virtues, don’t have the same magnetic pull.