Collective bargaining rights. It’s the American way. It says it’s a “right” directly in the name. I guess that goes to show the power of language. What if you called it collective bargaining power? That might make a difference when polling Americans about their feelings on the subject. Taking away a right sounds pretty undesirable; power on the other hand, that sounds more doable. Beyond language, or artfully crafted word games, collective bargaining does speak to an American’s basic desire to have a voice. When it comes to compensation, sometimes individual voices fall short. We’ve all had the boss that writes a $100 Christmas bonus check to thank us for all of our hard work. Well, thanks, I’ve just spent 3,000 hours at the office this year and earned you a measurable $2 million in profit. Now I know you really appreciate it.
Unions aren’t all evil, although some union representatives, anecdotally, are nothing short of thugs. The important distinction to make here is between public and private unions. The teachers union, for example, is on the public side. They collect dues from the teachers, who are paid by the taxpayers to educate society’s children. The union funnels those dues to elect their candidate of choice. Now you have a standoff between the candidate elect and the teachers union to negotiate salary, benefits, etc. Let’s call the candidate governor. The governor has been elected by the taxpayers to represent their interests. Yet that person is negotiating with a union who financially aided their campaigns: past, present, and future. That is a clear conflict of interest. Who should we be more concerned about…the interests of 99.8% of the electorate or the interests of a union?
We’ve seen the standoff in Wisconsin between Governor Scott Walker and the teachers union. There, the union has conceded wage and benefit cuts to help balance the state budget. Governor Walker wants to take away their collecting bargaining power. On the grounds that collecting bargaining in the public sector is a clear conflict of interest, I don’t have a problem with this. Governor Walker has also threatened to lay off 1,500 public workers if at least one of the 14 Senate Democrats does not return from Chicago by today, all of whom fled the state to avoid voting on the bill.
Teachers have an extremely difficult job, no question. But they do receive higher pay and better benefits than their average private sector counterparts. Many more public workers have held onto their jobs while the private sector has contracted severely since 2008. I don’t wish for anyone to lose their job but the taxpayer has been abused repeatedly by public unions. The union in Wisconsin has conceded pay cuts this time, during possibly the worst economic conditions of those worker’s lives. What happens when the economy turns around again?
I’m not against teachers being paid a great deal. I actually think it is a crime that the best teachers don’t make six figures at some point in their careers. The importance of their job really can’t be understated. But anyone who has attended public school recently can speak to the fact that they had a handful of average teachers, a few excellent ones, and a few horrific ones. It’s a standard distribution. The unions make it difficult to get rid of the terrible teachers and compensate the excellent ones handsomely. If there was a prospect of making more than $35,000/year, many more people would elect to take their talents to education. This would increase the human capital in the teaching profession, which would produce more quality educating. Any type of merit pay is a very difficult thing to evaluate, but that should be up to the administrators and districts to create those evaluation systems.
The downfalls of the American public education system are many. It is a complex array of social and systematic problems, many of which I am not qualified to write on. No Child Left Behind brilliantly takes funding away from schools that don’t hit standardized test score benchmarks. In other words, schools that arguably need that funding the most get it stripped away. It’s not very surprising that schools located in low socio-economic areas tend to struggle on standardized tests. Socio-economic status takes into account family income, parental education level, parental occupation, and social status in the community (such as contacts within the community, group associations, and the community’s perception of the family). If children are coming to school hungry, in poor hygiene, from the neighborhood shelter, or having encountered any type of abuse, chances are they’re not ready to learn. Regardless of the school, No Child Left Behind fosters a culture of “teaching to the standardized test”. That is in large part how teachers are judged so it’s no surprise that they would take this approach. It’s very questionable that this is the best use of the student’s time.
Let’s take a look at high school graduation rates. Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center reported the following last June:
Three out of every 10 students in America’s public schools fail to finish high school with a diploma…That amounts to 1.3 million students falling through the cracks of the high school pipeline every year, or more than 7,200 students lost every day. Most nongraduates are members of historically disadvantaged minority groups. Dropouts are also more likely to have attended school in large, urban districts and to come from communities plagued by severe poverty and economic hardship.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves either. Those that do receive a diploma don’t necessarily read at a twelfth grade level or have basic math and science skills. Furthermore, the arts and physical education tend to be the first to go with budget cuts, so those areas are fostered less and less. We have a true education crisis. When I look at the quality of education taking place, it gets very difficult to feel for organizations like the teachers unions and the Department of Education. Both are clearly an integral part of the problem.
As a non-education professional, my recommendations would be to first scrap the Department of Education. Allow education to be dealt with on a local level. Next, whatever needs to occur in order to fire poor teachers and pay the best much more, it needs to be done. I don’t foresee a world where teachers unions disappear, so perhaps a vast reconstruction of the scope of their contracts is in order. Unfortunately, the scene in Wisconsin shows just how willing a public union is to concede power. Many education professionals point to Finland and Singapore, where the schools achieve far better outcomes than the US while being virtually 100 percent unionized. Apparently, there is at least a better way to operate in a unionized system. I just feel like a school’s administration must be empowered to judge their staff based on whatever criteria they see fit, and be free to respond accordingly.
Will we make kids, our future, a priority? Or do all we care about is teacher seniority, tenure, and public collective bargaining? I think we should remember that being a public employee is a public service. They work for the taxpayers. Taxpayers should have a mechanism to remove teachers for poor performance, at least peripherally through school administration. Some unions have made concessions on the ability to remove incompetent teachers. This union provides teachers who are judged “unsatisfactory” a one-year “improvement plan” to get their act together. If they don’t, they face a dismissal hearing within 100 days. That’s better than nothing, but I don’t know that it promotes getting the best teaching talent in front of the kids. I’d rather have a system where the administration could act on a dime to remove incompetent teachers. We’re already struggling to compete with other nations in many areas. Without a revolution in education, the problem will only continue to get worse.