Guest Saturday with The Free Market Project

This  article was originally published by Pat Slattery at The Free Market Project on February 22, 2011.

Teachers’ Unions Harm Good Teachers


I’m basking in the sunlight pouring in on public sector unions in Wisconsin, particularly the teachers’ union.

They keep saying that they are doing it for the children.  These people are educators, which means they are half a step down from saints (in their own eyes, perhaps).  But who do teachers’ unions protect?

They protect the worst teachers.  They enable bad teachers to continue being bad at their jobs and the size of their union enables politics to control the educational agenda (the politically correct agenda of the day) rather than real-world results of literacy, graduation, and competence in subjects that give kids an ability to get a good job or create a job (become entrepreneurial).

If teachers unions were concerned with the quality of education and with higher teacher pay, they’d disband themselves and support private sector reforms and competition in education.  They’d support a voucher system, where parents got a voucher that paid their child’s tuition to a school and the parents could choose the school, rather than fighting school choice and trying to keep kids locked into the current, failing, public school system.

Let’s look at teacher pay.  Unions negotiate pay scales (usually based on seniority, not productivity).  They also make it really difficult to fire bad teachers, and they try to avoid even subjecting teachers to metrics that would determine if a teacher was effective or not.  This means that a great teacher will be paid roughly the same as a bad teacher, and that teaching positions will be taken by bad teachers.

What would happen in a competitive environment?  A good teacher would become a valuable asset.  They wouldn’t be afraid of having their work assessed, because they’d know that their value would be proven.  As a result of being good, their work would be in demand, as competing schools would have to bid for the best teachers’ services in order to get the parents to send the students to their school.  In other words, pay would increase for good teachers in a competitive environment.  Bad teachers, and bad management would quickly disappear as consumers (parents) made choices regarding where they wanted their kids educated.

Teachers, one would think, would be smart enough to figure out that the current system is not designed to maximize their pay and benefits.  It’s designed to maximize the pay and benefits of bad teachers.  Good teachers should want the most competitive environment possible.  Would an NFL quarterback want to work in a system where seniority dictated playing time and pay, rather than productivity on the field?  Would a quarterback want no competition between teams for the services of free agents?  People complain that executives make so much more than workers.  They do so because executives have knowledge and skills that are not easily found (whether they’ve gained those from experience, education, or creative thinking).  Where you can find 100 people who can do more menial dispensable jobs, you can find far fewer who excel at management positions.  Therefore there is higher pay for good executives and for great quarterbacks because teams and companies compete.  Teachers, on the other hand, put themselves in a position where their greatness isn’t rewarded.  They put themselves in a position where there is little competition among employers for their special talents.  They put their financial well-being into the hands of unions whose main function is to protect the least able among them.

Now the teachers take to the streets of Wisconsin at the behest of the unions that actually limit their compensation in order to take care of the worst teachers among them.  And they look like they are the greedy ones as they fight against doing what those who pay their salaries have to do all the time.  But, the people are seeing things more clearly.  We know that the unions are protecting bad teachers and lowering the quality of our children’s education both through the protection of those bad teachers and the politically driven education agenda.  The people should be demanding an end to teacher’s unions altogether and a private sector reform of education in this country.  Instead, all Wisconsin voters are asking for is a little more contribution from teachers to their own health care and pensions, and perhaps a little less protection of bad teachers.  It seems to me that Wisconsin is asking too little, not too much.  And that the truly good teachers should be demanding that the Governor and Republicans in the legislature go farther.

4 thoughts on “Guest Saturday with The Free Market Project

  1. This is so true. In any socialistic system, there is a disincentive for the good to excel, as no matter what they do, they will make the same as those that fail.

    It reminds me of an old saying from the Soviet Union…

    “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

  2. With the left also getting their people into the critical political positions of school boards , so that they have hiring and firing authority, the quality of the teachers hired has probably less to do with their ability than in the past, and perhaps more to do with their loyalty to liberal ideologies, including the probability of strong pro-union views.
    In other words, loyalty is more important than talent in this non competitive environment, and those doing the hiring are not looking for what we would expect from our teachers, as they are motivated by preserving their system.

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