Reprinted from the Des Moines Register March 1.

A state board has accused two Keokuk middle school teachers of cheating to earn one of them a master’s degree, which she used to secure a pay increase.

The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners is asking Ehren Wills and Kay Slusher to surrender their teaching licenses. Wills submitted Slusher’s work to earn a degree through an online school, according to the board. Both teachers are accused of numerous violations.

Such cheating by teachers, if true, is obviously galling and ironic.

The story also raises questions about the quality of a program offered by Missouri-based Hannibal LaGrange University, which allows someone to earn a master’s degree completely online. Wills enrolled for 11 months. A year’s tuition is $20,000.

A Google search finds numerous opportunities for teachers to earn master’s degrees completely online. When a teacher automatically receives a pay increase for earning a degree, online schools have no shortage of customers. In Keokuk, that degree can earn a teacher an additional $7,000 annually after 12 years of service.

What do Iowa schools think they are paying for?

Studies have found the additional degree has little to no effect on student achievement. Education experts know this.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education under former President Obama, came under fire after suggesting teachers should be compensated based on effectiveness rather than “paper credentials.”

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, has argued against the automatic pay increases, noting during a meeting with Register writers a few years ago there is “no correlation between having a master’s degree and better outcomes.”

Public dollars may pay for graduate courses and then higher salaries, she said. Those teachers are not more effective in a classroom. They are simply better compensated. The only exception, Rhee said, was for secondary math and science teachers where “content mastery” in a specific subject does make a difference.

Bill Gates, who has been an education-focused philanthropist for two decades and plans to invest $1.7 billion in public education over the next five years, has been critical of automatic pay increases for master’s degrees.

“My own state of Washington has an average salary bump of nearly $11,000 for a master’s degree — and more than half of our teachers get it,” he told school officials in 2010. “That’s more than $300 million every year that doesn’t help kids. And that’s just one state. As a country, we spend $9 billion a year for master’s degrees.”

In Iowa, nearly 35 percent of teachers hold these additional degrees, according to data compiled by the Iowa Department of Education. Iowa school districts pay these teachers more.

With little to no evidence the degrees improve education for students, the additional compensation is a waste of public money. And Iowa schools don’t have any money to waste.