In the Arena

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In a response to my earlier post about the fundamental problem with public employees unions, Alex Altman writes:

Yes, it’s way too hard to fire bad teachers. But we smear good ones with the same brush. In his State of the Union last month, President Obama noted that teachers are known as “nation-builders” in Korea. “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect,” he said. If you take a stroll around Internet comment boards (not just this one, though it’s certainly the case here), it’s clear that many people consider them lazy, overpaid parasites instead. The U.S. lags behind many of its competitors in student achievement, and this attitude is one reason why we’ll stay there.

But the problem isn’t only the inability to fire bad teachers–and not just bad teachers, but even those who’ve been caught commiting crimes and hitting on students. The problem is that we are unable to reward good teachers.

The teachers unions have traditionally blocked that. And there are a myriad of other educational difficulties that result from the fact that the union bosses say they want to see teachers treated as professionals, but create systems of work rules that treat teachers like steelworkers. A good example is taking place in New York City right now, which, like many municipalities, is facing the harsh reality of teacher layoffs: the union insists they be laid off by seniority–last hired, first fired. This will remove from city classrooms some young, energetic inspirational teachers and retain others who are burned out and hanging on to make their pension. (Of course, not all young teachers are good and not all older teachers are bad–but school managers should be able to select their workforce just as magazine editors do, according to ability–especially if we’re allegedly dealing with professionals here).

From Franklin Roosevelt on, progressive politicians have worried about the impact of giving public employees the right to organize. There is a reason for that. The public sector is different from the private sector. When General Motors negotiates with its workers to change its pension and health care benefits system, the United Auto Workers knows that unless it sits down at the table and negotiates for real, the company could easily close shop. When the teachers union sits down with Mayor Bloomberg or Governor Walker or any other elected official, they have an unfair piece of leverage, a built-in structural dysfunction–they know that the Governor can’t shut down the schools. “There’s no reason for them to negotiate in good faith,” former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told me this morning.

And there is a second, corrupting factor: the UAW* can’t vote or campaign for new management. The Teachers Unions can and do. Far too often, new contracts have been acts of collusion rather than negotiation–with the unions wielding the extremely powerful sledgehammer of campaign contributions and eager bodies to staff phone banks, leaflet and go door to door. Essentially, public sector unions have the ability to sit on both sides of the table–their managers are their employees: another profound structural dysfunction. In some larger cities, public employees make up a disproportionate percentage of all voters, an estimated 20% in New York (and, believe me, teachers are among the most assiduous of voters). It is no wonder that politicians of both parties in union states have gifted these unions egregious benefits, especially in areas–like work rules–that don’t show up in the budget.

As I said in my earlier post, a great many public employees are severely underpaid–this is especially true at the federal level, where the scientists testing drugs at the Food and Drug Administration or the bank regulators at the SEC could probably double their salaries by sliding into the private sector. But it’s also true at the bottom of the wage scale, for the school bus drivers and home health care workers. The only rationale for public employees unions to exist is to create wage floors for such workers. But the public unions have set about, largely unimpeded, to build walls (work rules) that constrict government innovation and ceilings (opposition to merit pay) that make it less likely that the most talented professionals will remain in public service. That is the fundamental problem of governance we’re facing as we attempt to compete in a global economy. This is not merely a budget problem–it may not be much of a budget problem at all in Wisconsin. Even if there were state surpluses across this great land, the stultifying effects of public employees unions, especially the teachers, would be a serious national conundrum to be dealt with. (As for the budget issue, as I said in an earlier post, I”m in favor of higher salaries for public employees–especially those who merit them–and also in favor of higher taxes to pay for them.)

But Alex, if you want a society where teachers are respected, you have to empower them with the same freedoms and responsibilities that real professionals have. You can’t treat them like assembly-line workers.

*Actually, as reader Freeinpa points out, this isn’t a good example because, under the terms of the government reorganization, the UAW bought a percentage of GM stock. That’s a very rare exception–very few unions have significant ownership states in their companies–but even there, the possibility that GM could fail, tossing every UAW member out of work, tempers the union’s ability to make demands.

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