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Strike rhetoric has little merit

Half of Utah's 40 school districts are trying to raise property taxes this year. And, while it is unfair to castigate all of them without examining their individual needs, it must be noted that Utahns already bear the highest household tax burdens in the Western United States.

Of course, the Utah Taxpayers Association compiled this information, which might make it suspect in the minds of Utah Education Association officials. After all, they have done everything they can to throw water on a recent Taxpayer Association report that showed Utah public school teachers are the second highest compensated in the West.Utahns have every right to feel frustrated by the increasingly militant tone UEA officials use in hinting what they may be willing to do if the Legislature doesn't increase teacher pay soon. At a UEA leadership conference this week, President Phyllis Sorensen had strong words for lawmakers about the need for more money, acknowledging at a press conference after the meeting that one of the options on the table is a general strike.

True, Utahns have, on the average, more children than the people of other states and they bear a responsibility for educating those children. But teachers here seem to be relatively well compensated, and the union isn't going to win a lot of points by making money an issue that gets in the way of quality education.

The Taxpayer Association survey found that Utah teachers averaged $43,557 in compensation in 1996-97, including $11,690 in benefits. The UEA disputes the notion that this is better than the compensations in all surrounding states except Nevada. But even without the comparisons, the Utah figure seems like a reasonable and livable wage.

Do teachers deserve more? Some do, but some clearly deserve either to be paid less or to be forced into other fields. In any event, the cold, hard reality is that Utah taxpayers have little more to give.

If the UEA wants to make compensation its No. 1 issue, it ought to throw its weight behind the concept of merit pay. That way, the best teachers could receive salaries commensurate with their value, and taxpayers could feel confident their money is buying the best education possible.

And if lawmakers want to avoid the mess of a statewide strike, they ought to approve a voucher system that gives parents choices and that keeps the UEA from holding them and their children hostage.