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If you pay less, don't expect the best

As Americans and consumers, we learn one lesson very early in life. It is the adage "You get what you pay for." We know that if we buy clothes off the discount rack, we must inspect the item thoroughly for holes. We don't expect perfection. We know that the best haircuts, mechanics, doctors and furniture cost more money. If we want something of top quality, we know that we're going to have to pay for it.

You get what you pay for. We accept that fact without question . . . most of the time. We waver when we're talking about what we're willing to pay for our children to receive a top-quality education.

Let me put my circumstances in perspective for you. I have been a high school teacher for six years. I teach smart kids in a well-funded magnet school. I was a finalist for Pinellas County's Outstanding Educator Award last year; top three in the Creativity and Innovation category. I am a professional. I am passionate about education. My unique style of instruction has been featured on CNN, Fox 13 Magazine, and Channel 14. I have a master's degree and am very well-schooled in my subject area. I am a good teacher who endeavors to do great things. And I am one among many.

Having said that, I should tell you that I am seriously considering a career change. Why? Because my mechanic makes more money than I do, and the quality of his product doesn't make local and national news. Because I am tired. I am tired of increased expectations and decreased compensation. I am considering other options because I can no longer justify my passion with the reward. I can't pay my electric bill with residual passion. Because we have forgotten that you get what you pay for.

Florida is one of the lowest-paying states for teachers. We Pinellas County teachers have been working on last year's pay scale for three months. We have tentatively reached a contract settlement that rewards the vast majority of teachers with a mere $500 raise for the year.

Make no mistake. This proposal represents an effective cut in pay for most teachers. When you factor in the increase in our contribution to health insurance this year, the significant increase in our copays, and the cost of living increase, the loss is significant for what is already an embarrassingly low wage. For me, it means that after six years of service and a master's degree, I will gross $34,950. For my colleagues with 15 years of experience and a master's degree, it amounts to a gross income of $37,900. I believe that 15 years devoted to what is undisputedly one of the most important jobs on the planet deserves better compensation. It is an insult.

At the same time, the demands of our job have become ridiculous. Is it any wonder that we have a teacher shortage? Many _ most _ of us work far beyond our contracted hours. When do you think we grade papers, develop lesson plans, sponsor clubs, conduct tutorials, and attend workshops and extra training? On our own time, my friends. We've been giving away the milk for too long.

It's funny to me that when we hire someone to paint our house at a discount rate, and the trim is less than straight, we don't complain. After all, we got the job done for cheap. It's an unspoken rule that when you engage in cut-rate business deals, you forfeit the right to complain. My message is direct. Quit complaining, or be willing to fork up the dollars for a better job. You get what you pay for.

I am tired, too, of legislation that does not come with funding. "No Child Left Behind" is a wonderful notion that has no money behind it. It places many schools in this county in a place of frustration and imminent failure because it fails to take our diverse population of students into account. The smaller class size amendment is the same story. Of course, a universal smaller class is the ideal model. But we have neither the human nor the financial resources to fund it. If we really want it, we must be willing to pay for it.

Moreover, school and teacher evaluations that are based on FCAT scores are an absurdity. Anyone who knows anything about science, data and evaluation knows that you can only measure growth by controlling variables. In the case of FCAT, growth is based on a different population of students each year, each with their own unique history and educational experience. We would have to track the same population over time to measure any meaningful growth. Anything else is a crapshoot.

The current method of evaluation is the same as someone handing you a fistful of crunched-up bills that have passed through many hands before yours. Your instruction is to smooth them out and count them. If you have $100 in your hand after the smoothing process, all is well. If you don't _ well, you're neither good at the smoothing nor the counting process.

Even checkers at the grocery store don't change tills before counting the money. In that case, everyone understands accountability. The same basic tenets do not apply to education and accountability. We all seem to want free milk; we're not willing to buy the cow, much less the farm.

So, I may leave the profession. Or I will go to a state that is willing to pay me for my talents. I know that I will be easily replaced. But remember: You get what you pay for.

_ Lorre L. Gifford teaches physics at the Center for Advanced Technologies, the magnet school at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.