A Fantasy Compromise
Earlier, I mentioned Julia Steiny’s contribution to the belated march of red flags throughout the Providence Journal. Steiny’s piece is interesting because she attempts to draw a line through the ranks of teachers:
… in the shrill, righteous rhetoric, sometimes screamed by both the left and the right, teachers are lumped together as if they are a homogenous group, with the same interests. Good teachers deserve far better. Academically, they’re the best allies of the kids. Fiscally, they’re our best buy.
Steiny elides the fact that the teachers have effectively assented to this treatment by, first, joining together into a collective and, second, failing to exhibit deep differences of opinion among themselves. It isn’t really fair to fault the “righteous rhetoric” when educators present a unified face.
To be sure, Steiny notes that in “pay-to-play states, teachers can refuse to join” unions, but “payback for bucking the union can be ferocious.” How much more ferocious things must be in states, like Rhode Island, in which union membership is compulsory. Indeed, I wonder whether it’s possible to go from there to a “right to work” scenario in which teachers have a right to form unions but also a right not to participate in them, as Steiny suggests. In Rhode Island, the unions are already formed, which means that teachers would have to break away one by one. That sounds like a recipe for a divided workforce devoting far too much behind-the-scenes energy to the labor battle.
It’s actually surprising that Steiny doesn’t agree, given other observations in her article:
Unions are private-sector businesses with leaders that make fat six-figure salaries. If they do not give their teachers good customer service, state laws should not keep them in business. A pot of compulsory dues allows unions to ignore dissenting rank and file and use the money to, for example, fight much-needed reforms to professionalize hiring, or to weed out bad teachers, or to extend the school day (which every charter school has already done). Unions cling to hiring by seniority with a death grip, even though it is clearly detrimental to education.
Surely, Steiny has had some taste of the tactics that such vested interests will use against those who speak against them. Is that a battle that we want to impose on our best educators?
For their part, they’ve arguably already proven their disinclination for the fight by failing to speak out already.
Unions as businesses is a poor analogy. They are unnatural and unconsented-to creations of government afforded special privileges and rules by law. I do actually support unions (public or private) provided that individuals are given the free option not to join. Freedom of association and all that – kind of a basic American right.
What I’d like conservatives and libertarians to realize is that we don’t have to eliminate public unions to solve the chronic financial problems that they can bring to a state. Right to work legislation levels the playing field that is torn in half by forced-union legislation. All you have to do is pull up a map of right-to-work states and the forced-union states are by far in the most dire straits when it comes to massive per-capita budget deficits. CA, NY, MA, RI, CT, WI, IL, etc. The right-to-work states fare much better and it’s not a coincidence. Where I live in Virginia, unions are a complete non-issue and both sides are pretty happy with the arrangement. Those who want to join join, those who don’t don’t. The only ones left out in the cold are the 6-figure union leaders who can no longer get away with their abuse of state and municipal governments and their members alike, and good riddance to them.
I have yet to hear a good moral argument for coercing individuals to be represented by a union against their will. Best I can determine, it just comes back to the same old “people don’t know what’s best for themselves” mantra central to the progressive philosophy.
One thing I’d like to figure out an answer to is the problem of seniority. I completely understand why the law is in there. Too often, school committees are not necessarily the smartest people when it comes to education, they were just the most electable. Also quite often, they have budgets to meet. So if you’re looking at a teacher slated to make $75,000 this year and looking at a pile of resumes where you can pluck the best one and pay that person $35,000 a year, why wouldn’t you?
Well, maybe that $75,000 teacher is awesome. A great teacher. Great teachers more than earn their salary.
However, the opposite is also true where some teachers are just in it to get their 20, 25, 30 years or whatever and cash out in retirement and coast. Haven’t written a new lesson plan in 10 years, Given the same quizzes, have the students grade them and hand them in.
It’s clearly a fine line that I’m still looking for an answer on how to fix it.
A bit off-topic but I came across an incredible chart the other day that illustrates the process required to remove a teacher:
Then there is the case where the town stops providing educational services to a child because she is too expensive. So I guess that’s one way to keep high price teachers, just get rid of the expensive students. http://www.ri-specialeducation.com/