AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The quality of Texas' teachers is dropping largely because of low pay in a competitive market, an expert economist testified Tuesday in the public school finance trial.
Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor said teacher salaries were 30 percent lower in Texas than for other college graduates and have fallen behind salaries paid in other Sun Belt states. He added 32 other states pay higher salaries, whereas Texas' have not kept up with inflation since 2000.
Vigdor was called to testify by attorneys for wealthy schools that are among the 600 districts to sue the state over $5.4 billion in cuts to school funding.
The average Texas teacher salary is $47,311, well below the national average of $54,965. The pay is also historically low, noting that 50 years ago a teacher earned 50 percent more than a registered nurse in Texas, but now nurses earn 50 percent more than teachers.
Vigdor said the low pay has led quality teachers to leave the state or change professions, leading to an overall decline in teacher quality. He used statistics from 2010 for all of his testimony.
"The situation in Texas has declined over the past several years at a fairly rapid pace," Vigdor said. "It behooves the state to think carefully about whether they are investing in the teacher labor market at a level that is consistent with the goals that they have espoused."
Under cross examination from Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg, Vigor conceded that some teachers quit to make more money in a different career and that he did not take cost of living into account for disparities in salary.
Vigdor, however, pointed out that state data shows schools have added 270,000 more students, but have lost 3,400 teachers. He warned that simply firing low-performing teachers without offering better salaries to better candidates will not solve the problem, particularly with so many teachers nearing retirement.
"Firing the bottom 5 percent on an annual basis means recruiting 15,000 extra teachers per year to replace them. This is on top of the roughly 40,000 teachers that you need to hire just to keep up with population growth and regular attrition," Vigdor testified. "The state would have a difficulty bumping up from 40,000 to 55,000. The difficulties of recruiting highly qualified teachers would only get worse."