The New Unionism, Legislative Version



By 04/15/2011

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An expanding list of states has joined in legislative battles over the future character of collective bargaining, a territory that was completely uncharted six months ago.  A combination of state fiscal crises plus newly elected Republican legislatures and governors, has emboldened the legislatures in the traditionally union-friendly states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.  They are joined by states as diverse as Idaho, Alabama, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.  But, what is it all about?  Or, more interestingly, what should it be about?

The headline story has been fiscal issues – salaries, retirement and health benefits, and the bargains agreed to by legislatures past.  But these issues have morphed into issues more fundamentally threatening to the unions – the right to strike, the ability to bargain about nonsalary issues, and the like.  In response, the teachers unions have mounted a concerted counter-attack aimed at restoring their prior position.

The fiscal issues are important, but I do not think they are the most important ones.  In a recent article in Education Next, “Valuing Teachers,” I presented evidence about the huge economic impacts of highly effective teachers.  A parallel calculation also reveals the huge costs to highly ineffective teachers.  To me, this is what we should be talking about.  The quality of our teaching force determines the level of student achievement, and student achievement directly determines how our economy will develop in the long run.

I argue elsewhere that the teacher unions would be better off getting in front of the teacher quality issue.  The low public regard for teacher unions is, I would argue, a result of public perceptions that concern for student outcomes ranks very low relative to the income, convenience, and preferences of the teachers themselves.  The public – generally very supportive of teachers – does not understand union positions that over-protect the small number of teachers who are harming kids.  The unions can try to rebuild their image (while doing good for America) by actively participating in efforts to figure out how to evaluate teachers and how schools can make personnel decisions based on those evaluations.

But, it should also be recognized that others in the schools are not innocent.  First, the current fiscal problems of school systems, with excessive retirement and health packages, were the result of prior agreements by legislatures, administrators, and school boards.  They were not unilaterally imposed by the unions.

Second, even in states without collective bargaining, there are precious few decisions made on the basis of teacher effectiveness.    There is scant evidence that performance in states without collective bargaining is better than in states with strong collective bargaining.

Returning to the opening question:  what should the current discussions be about?  They should, in my mind, focus on how the incentives, rules, and actions can be arranged to ensure that there is indeed an effective teacher in every classroom.  This in turn really means focusing on student learning.

The unions have to quit defending the worst of the worst.  The majority of very good teachers need to quit tolerating the few bad teachers in their midst. The administrators have to quit hiding behind the “it’s all the unions’ fault” slogan and figure out how to evaluate teachers and to use that information in pay and retention decisions.  The districts must hold administrators responsible for their decisions and set incentives for them that parallel those for teachers.  The legislatures must reward districts for getting it right, not for getting it wrong.

The switch to a focus on student outcomes would be a dramatic change for all parties.  And, returning to my underlying motivation, whether or not we can do this will have a lot to say about the future economic well-being of America.  The contrasting futures of America with and without improvement of our schools are dramatically different.

-Eric Hanushek




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