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Is Illinois solving an existing problem, creating a new one or both?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week signed legislation establishing minimum salary levels for public school teachers that will rise to $40,000 by the 2023-24 school year.

He touted the new mandates as one of the solutions to the current teacher shortage.

A $40,000 annual salary isn’t a huge sum. But it’s a dicey business when politicians get together to set minimum salaries for each public school system — large or small, rich or poor — in Illinois’ 102 counties.

Here’s why: Just because the state mandates that employers, in this case school districts, pay salaries that are set at specific levels, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that school districts have the money to pay those salaries.

Pritzker insists that’s no problem, predicting that ever-rising levels of state aid to local school districts will guarantee school districts have plenty of money to cover these new cost mandates.

The state might well do as the governor suggests. After all, legislators have been appropriating funds the state doesn’t have for years now. Past can be prologue.

But that kind of approach is problematic, as those familiar with the state’s state of effective bankruptcy well know.

Illinois is up to its neck in financial problems — debts, deficits and public pension woes galore.

Here’s just one education-funding related example.

The governor speaks of large increases in state aid to schools, and he’s right. The state’s current spending plan increases K-12 funding by nearly $379 million. But that money isn’t necessarily going to pay for education costs, including increased salaries.

Adam Schuster, director of budget research at the Illinois Policy Institute, reports that a large share is going for teacher pensions, not salaries.

He reports that “in the coming school year, 36 percent of the money the state allocates to education will” be used for “required pension payments for retirees.”

“This represents a 200 percent increase in spending on teacher pensions since 2000, compared with a mere 20 percent increase on classroom spending during that period,” he wrote.

Those costs can be expected to continue to increase because the under-funding of the Teachers Retirement System, one of the state’s five public pensions, keeps increasing despite massive infusions of new money.

Pritzker’s promise of increased aid may be fulfilled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean what most people think it means.

This legislation will, no doubt, be welcomed by those who benefit from it. Pritzker estimated that it will provide pay raises for about 8,000 teachers, and few, however concerned they are about the source, will begrudge them the money.

The new minimum salary schedule requires a $32,076 level for the 2020-21 school year, increasing to $40,000 annually over the following three years. They are hardly munificent sums, even in the lowest cost-of-living areas of Illinois.

Still, the better approach would be to let the marketplace work. Given the current teacher shortage, the law of supply and demand is surely in play.

School districts all over the state face increased competition to fill vacant teacher positions, and they have no choice but to meet new market conditions.

That might even prompt school districts to look for new ways to cut administrative costs, perhaps by consolidating business office operations or even school districts.

Whatever the districts’ approach, making free markets work is a better solution than trying to manipulate them with one-size-fits-all regulations.

News-Gazette