Oct 03

Something’s askew with President Obama’s stance towards unions.

As reported by Neil King Jr. in a September 30th Wall Street Journal article,  Education Secretary Arne Duncan is staring down opposition from the teachers’ unions in his bid to (gasp!) improve outcomes within public schools through the promotion of charter schools, merit pay, and changing the rules for hiring and firing teachers.   Duncan’s plans reflect Obama’s vision from his campaign, and as someone who considers himself entirely pro-teacher, but anti-teacher-union, I want to applaud and give credit where due.

But such support flies in the face of Obama’s otherwise strong support for union organizing and one would think by extension, what unions are all about.   Such support includes the promotion of the Orwellian-named “Employee Free Choice Act” where simply put, workers would lose their right to a secret ballot on whether or not to have a union.   You read that correctly, and it is comical to listen to union leaders try to defend the proposal.      Note that the March 6, 2009 low in the S&P500 was within days of the revelation that EFCA  might not be the legislative layup many people anticipated.

Reviewing the text of Obama’s September 15th speech to the AFL-CIO, where he spoke of the need to grow the nation’s labor unions, it is impossible to not see the similarities in his descriptions of the state of labor in the early 1930’s and the state of big government today:

“It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s. “A benevolent dictatorship,” said the local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The foreman’s whim ruled the day, and the company hired workers from different lands and different races, the better to keep them divided, it was thought at the time.”

Isn’t Obama himself relishing the opportunity to be nothing less than a benevolent dictator?   His stable of “czars”, upwards of two dozen depending on who’s counting, could be straight out of Stalin’s Russia of the 1930’s.   Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid play the roles of foremen very well, thank you.   And the very presence of a union in any company acts to keep labor and management divided.

Specifically regarding merit pay, if it is appropriate for teachers, how is it not appropriate for all workers?    Yet one does not suspect that unions are chomping at the bit to see EFCA passed so that they can then push merit pay for all.   As Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association has said, “If you pay one teacher more you have to pay someone else less.”    Merit pay contradicts the very essence of a union’s purpose, which is to promote equality and unity of the group at the expense of the individual.   Any principal who might be inclined to pay their standout teachers more may in fact be restricted by their need to then pay all teachers more, including those not deserving.   Obama can not simultaneously encourage the creation and expansion of unions, but be against their most fundamental philosophies.

A clear alternative

It is instructive to envision a potential public school system without a union.   It would start with the district superintendent, hired by the school board, a body that must answer to the voters.   The superintendent’s mandate would be to implement the vision and objectives of the voters as discerned by the school board.   The superintendent would in turn hire the management staff of each of the schools in the district: principals, assistant principals as well as district-wide administrators.    In turn, each of the principals would hire the staff of their particular school, coordinating with the district wherever operational efficiencies can be gained.   Department heads, working closely with the principal, would complete the staffing process with teachers and assistants.

Teacher compensation and school operating procedures would be dictated entirely by the management of the school district, according to whatever standards and requirements were necessary to hire the proper staff.  Principals could use any number of techniques, including sign-on bonuses, short or long-term contracts and performance bonuses, customized work schedules and job descriptions, etc., as they see fit. The principal might consider soliciting regular feedback from parents about all aspects of staff performance, and the superintendent might do likewise for their principals.

Competition between school districts would ensure that they treated their teachers fairly.  The best teachers would quickly see their value rise in the marketplace, and a district would have every incentive to keep them happy, according to a personalized definition of happiness as defined by each particular teacher.   To some it might mean more pay.  To others, greater flexibility in scheduling or job description, or any combination of factors.  Likewise, principals would have total flexibility over replacing teachers that were not meeting performance standards.    Measurement of performance would exist at all stages in the system, with the buck ultimately stopping at the public voting booth.

There’s actually nothing novel about such a system.   It’s already in place at thousands of highly successful public companies large and small around the world, with shareholders and customers voting with their dollars in real-time.  And they don’t have unions.

“But hey, schools are different!   How can a principal have so much control over a teacher’s job when their class may have any number of challenges that change year to year? A teacher can’t pick their students!  How could a teacher’s performance ever be fairly evaluated, with their compensation controlled by that?”   Indeed, at a dinner years ago where I sat next to the local teachers’ union president, he described these very concerns to me at length.

These concerns are a complete red herring.  Hundreds of millions of employees work effectively with their management teams to solve tremendously difficult problems all the time and have done so for decades.    It is what makes them “professionals”.    None of this is to suggest that today’s teachers are not professionals.   Hardly.   But the above system would respect that professionalism more, attract and retain the best and most qualified personnel, treat them as individuals and not segregate them into groups of convenience, and produce a better product for the customer – the students, parents and taxpayers.

Perhaps you think that the school dynamic represents the most challenging managerial problem conceivable.   It still does not follow that the solution would involve inserting a group of people unaccountable to the customer, a group whose very presence guarantees the introduction of additional complexity and inefficiency between the two parties involved, into the equation.   Yes there are occasionally times for “mediation”, but why require building that in from the start?

As parents we’ve already done the hard part:  We’ve entrusted our most valuable possessions, our children, to the staff of our school system.   So why can’t we trust the school staff, working closely with us as parents and voters to come up with fair and reasonable organizational systems that all can live with, ones that work best to meet the objectives of the voters?  And if there are laws in place that prevent the above from happening, like New York’s Taylor Law, then that is where legislative action must take place.   We need to start thinking about some basic questions:  What do the teachers’ unions do to advance the goal of providing a great education at a reasonable and sustainable cost, and why is their existence even necessary?  Just who’s running our school districts anyway?   Who should be running them?

With successes like those seen in Philadelphia, teachers’ unions are terrified by the prospect of more widely exposing themselves as an emperor with no clothes.   Unions in general have seen their ideas losing attraction in the marketplace, in the form of steadily declining memberships, and are now seeking to use the force of big government to achieve their goals.  We should all have the “audacity of hope” to see that campaign politics stay out of this trend.

What do you think?

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