Government fiddling with salaries is a bad idea—and elected officials on both sides of the aisle are guilty. Those on the left frequently clamor for increasing mandatory minimum wages, resulting in higher costs and layoffs. Those on the right often embrace caps thinking they’ll contain costs, but what they actually get is a twisted, unwieldy balloon animal: as officials constrict one end, the other end expands. 

That’s exactly what happened in New Jersey.

Last Friday New Jersey Democratic Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill removing school superintendent salary caps, which former Governor Chris Christie implemented in 2011. As The New Jersey Herald reports:

Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, issued the salary cap rules in February 2011 as a tool to help school boards contain budget and property tax increases following several well-publicized cases of superintendents getting salary packages of as much as $300,000 or more per year, along with other emoluments and perks, during a recession and fiscal crisis that saw most teachers across the state take a one-year pay freeze and others laid off.

You can guess what came next:

When first enacted in 2011, the caps established a sliding scale of upper limits on a superintendent's base pay of between $125,000 and $175,000, depending on a district's enrollment. The caps were relaxed in May 2017, the last year of Christie's governorship, to permit superintendents to receive a base salary [of between $147,794 and $191,584 depending on enrollment]. …In the years since, however, many school boards have continued awarding pay increases to principals, assistant superintendents, curriculum directors and other administrators to the point that some now earn more than their superintendents — exactly the opposite of what was anticipated when the superintendent caps were put in place.

Meanwhile, the median teacher salary in New Jersey is $68,650. Yet this disparity isn’t unique to the Garden State.

Nationwide, superintendents’ median base salaries range between $100,000 and $234,000, depending on their districts’ enrollment. In contrast, teachers’ median base salaries range between just under $37,000 and slightly over $44,000 (Table 2.3). This means superintendents’ salaries are about three to five times higher than teachers’ salaries—typically the bigger the district, the bigger the salary disparities.

The root cause of these disparities is that the wrong people control education funding: politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups. In other words, everybody but parents.

Putting parents in charge of their children’s education funding through vehicles like education savings accounts (ESAs) would mean that education providers would have to prioritize paying talented teachers higher salaries to attract students—or lose students to providers that do. 

Yet New Jersey is among the shrinking minority of states without a private-school choice program, and opponents want a moratorium on charter-school expansion. Instead of focusing on expanding superintendents’ six-figure salaries, elected officials should be expanding educational options for New Jersey families.