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Washington • A Massachusetts Democrat criticized Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for not recommending a bigger pay boost for public teachers, an unexpected turn in a congressional hearing focused on linking education with the needs of employers.
Rep. John Tierney argued that Herbert should have accepted the recommendation of public school officials, including his own Education Excellence Commission, by offering a 2 percent increase in the funding tied to salaries and not the 1.16 percent that he put in his budget.
He also noted that most public school teachers have not received a cost-of-living increase in four years.
Herbert said the pointed exchange was a partisan jab with little factual backing.
"It was a set-up," the governor said after the hearing. When asked why Tierney would take that line of questioning, Herbert said: "They say we have to discredit this state that is doing so well, because they should have labor unions and they should borrow more money and they should put more money into education."
Tierney originally misstated the percent that Herbert wants to raise Utah's weighted pupil unit and he erroneously claimed that Herbert was offering a bigger increase for higher education faculty than for those who teach in the K-12 system.
"To say higher ed is being treated better than K-12 education is a mischaracterization," said Kory Holdaway, a former Republican state lawmaker, who now works for the Utah Education Association.
But Holdaway said Tierney was correct in saying that it has been four years since teachers received a cost-of-living adjustment and that if the Legislature adopts the governor's proposal they won't get one in the next year either.
The Legislature will vote on any increase in education funding during the ongoing session and then officials at each school district will decide exactly how to spend the money. Herbert said during the hearing that districts could reduce benefits to give a pay raise or use the funds to cover rising costs in the benefit packages.
Holdaway said a 1.16 percent boost, worth $26 million statewide, would cover the rising costs of Social Security and retirement, but not the bump in health benefits or allow for an increase in take-home pay for most teachers.
Tierney said that if Herbert's budget were enacted, the school districts would get "a choice of poisons," either get no raise and keep your benefits, or get reduced benefits and a small raise.
The congressman turned to Jared Bernstein, an economist with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, arguing that stagnant school salaries must impact Utah's economy.
Bernstein said that Utah has seen its middle class salaries stagnate while the poorest 20 percent have seen their wages drop by 11 percent from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s.
After the hearing, Bernstein told The Salt Lake Tribune: "Elected officials are always going to tout how great their economies are doing and in the case of Utah there is some real stuff to brag about, but there are also folks in the state who have lost ground and I think political officials need to be, if anything, more mindful of people who have fallen behind."
According to the National Education Association, Tierney's Massachusetts ranks second in average teacher salaries at $68,733 annually. New York tops the list at $71,633. Utah ranks 38th in the nation at $46,340.