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  • Free-Market Job Protection for Teachers

    Posted by Shannon Love on March 8th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Megan McArdle quotes E. D. Kain arguing for teachers’ unions by saying:

    Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security. Occasionally this means bad teachers take longer to fire.

    Because of and not in spite of my free-market beliefs, I think Kain makes a valid point. Public-sector employees are not protected from arbitrary firings to the same degree that private-sector workers are and that does create a somewhat compelling argument for public-sector unions.

    The free market actually protects workers from being fired for reasons unconnected to their job performance. This is not to say that such firings never occur but rather that the free market provides a built-in mechanism for punishing managers who don’t make personnel decisions based solely on merit. This immediate and powerful feedback means that private-sector worker have more built-in and systematic protection against managerial bias, incompetence and malice than do public-sector workers.

    The best way to protect teachers and other public sector workers is to increase the exposure of their managers to market forces.

    Many opponents to the free market oppose it because they see it as impersonal and heartless. It rewards people based solely on their ability to produce goods and services that others will purchase voluntarily. The free market ignores any other criteria, e.g., whether an individual comes from a historically oppressed group. Free-market opponents see this as a fatal flaw.

    Free-market opponents miss that the impersonal, merit driven nature of the free market also protects individuals from the caprice and malice of others. Since the free market rewards productive merit, it economically punishes those managers who make decisions about hiring and firing based on any factor other than job performance. A manager who refuses to hire good workers because of some prejudices restricts his candidate pool and raises his employment cost, which the market translates into higher prices for the manager’s customers. A manager who fires good employees likewise raises the cost of his goods. In both cases, the quality of work per dollar spent declines. This places the business at a disadvantage relative to its competitors who hire and fire purely on merit.

    Public-sector managers, however, work within a violence-enforced monopoly and have only very weak and very long-term market forces acting upon them. Voting provides only very weak pseudo-market feedback because voters must average out and amalgamate all their opinions about all government services into one right or left decision. A citizen’s only option otherwise is to vote with his feet and leave a government jurisdiction whose quality of services he dislikes. That can prove so expensive for the citizen that he will tolerate inferior services from government that he would not tolerate from a private provider.

    Certainly a school district that fires good teachers or refuses to hire them will suffer in the long run but the length of that long run is measured in decades. Bad management decisions can survive for many, many times longer in public-sector monopolies than they can in the private sector. Even inside big companies that stay in business for decades, managers in individual departments or units face immediate feedback if they make poor personnel decisions. The rest of the company will not tolerate a unit that loses money by refusing to hire and fire on merit.

    However, even given this reality, the long-term solution isn’t to have public sector unions. The long-term solution is to privatize the decision-making in more public services, thus granting workers who provide public goods the protection of the free market.

    School choice, where the government provides vouchers to parents but parents decide where to spend those vouchers, is the best way to protect good teachers from the caprice and malice of political managers. A voucher-supported school will experience immediate negative feedback if the management does not make hiring and firing decisions based on merit. That feedback will take the form of parents withdrawing their children from the school and putting them in the school across the street. Teachers will then have both job protection and the opportunity to individually excel that the current politically-managed school system denies them.

    In short, the only reason that teachers need unions to protect them is that they work for the government and not for the parents of their students. Letting teachers work for the parents directly, protects the teachers and obviates the need for unions.

     

    21 Responses to “Free-Market Job Protection for Teachers”

    1. tehag Says:

      If unions are the means by which teachers are protected from bosses and politicians, how to explain the rash of stupid educational fads since 1960? Were teachers that refused to go along with whole language, studies programs protected?

    2. Ginny Says:

      Well, protects the good ones. I have my doubts that it is the good ones that feel they need the unions.

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Teachers, and other public employees, have had Civil Service protection long before unions appeared. In fact, many of the reasons quoted for the necessity of unions for public workers, such as hiring and firing fairness, have been Civil Service reforms since Chester A Arthur.

      The real problem with teachers and schools’ quality has to do with civil society. In 1962, when my wife began teaching in a Los Angeles barrio school, there were few alternatives for intelligent young women. They became teachers, or at USC where my wife and I were students, they became dental hygienists. Those who did not go to college, became nurses and often married doctors they met in training.

      Now, the women college students have the choice of law or business careers with real prospects of success. The students who choose education are either dedicated to teaching (a minority) or have few options for a good job. Nursing, as a profession, has similar issues. Now, young women interested in health care go to medical school. The nursing associations contributed to the problem when they forced the closure of “diploma schools” run by hospitals in the 1970s. They thought they could force every RN to get a college bachelor’s degree. It didn’t work so now, in California, most RNs go to junior college and do short clinical sessions in local hospitals. The result has been damaging to the profession as the diploma schools, the good ones, had a high reputation among doctors. Most new grad RNs know how poorly trained they are.

      The nursing associations have become hard leftist lobbying organizations and teachers unions are similar. They have done their professions no good.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Tehag,

      If unions are the means by which teachers are protected from bosses and politicians, how to explain the rash of stupid educational fads since 1960? Were

      Unions have no function in choosing education fads. They could, I suppose, oppose some plan that required fewer or lesser paid teachers but otherwise they have no incentive to act.

      After all, even the free-market doesn’t protect workers from a company going down the wrong path in pursuit of a product or service that will ultimately fail.

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I would recommend the “Edbiz” chapter of John Derbyshire’s book, We Are Doomed. I laughed so hard at that chapter, I cried. He has it all in there, from the Kansas City story (Everybody should know that one) to the fads that sweep through Ed schools.

      Personally, I think many teachers are bored with what it takes to teach little kids how to read and to do arithmetic. They seek other methods that are less effective but are a little less boring for the teacher whose motivation is minimal to begin with. That is why home schooling is so superior if the parent can only do it.

      I have a friend whose wife has taken one of their three sons out of school each year since they began. She then home schools the selected one. The three boys are super achievers, athletes and bright scholars. Two are out of high school (One graduates this June). The third is still there. The oldest was thinking about the Naval Academy but I don’t what his decision has been.

    6. Bill Waddell Says:

      Michael is absolutely right not only about teachers, but unions in general. Between minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations,socal security, civil service, workers compensation, child labor laws, unemployment compensation and numerous other laws and regulations the neeed for unions to protect any workers from abuse no longer exists.

    7. Bill Waddell Says:

      “Public-sector employees are not protected from arbitrary firings to the same degree that private-sector workers are”

      What is this assertion based on, Shannon? Teachers are not low level hourly workers. They are salaried professionals like most of the Chicago Boyz readers. Salaried people in the private sector are ‘at will’ employee who can be arbitrarily fired tomorrow without recourse. Why should a teacher deserve any more safeguard from arbitrary dismissal driven by budget cuts than everyone else in the working world?

    8. Shannon Love Says:

      Bill Waddell,

      What is this assertion based on

      The free-market provides discipline against arbitrary firings. Certainly bad managers do fire people for bad reasons but the problem is auto correcting over time. In the public sector, there is very little feedback and no autocorrection. In fact, when schools fail, the seeming natural political response is to give them more money.

      I wouldn’t call being laid off because of budget cuts arbitrary.

      I’m not sure you got my point (probably my fault.) I am arguing that if teachers require protection from cruel education management, then that is because they are public workers employed by an indifferent public monopoly. The solution is to make them private workers.

      Frankly, I don’t think the problem is that big. Teachers in Texas have never been unionized and they seem to escape the salt mines.

    9. Tatyana Says:

      The free market actually protects workers from being fired for reasons unconnected to their job performance.
      What planet are you living on? Tell that to millions of Americans – about 15M at the moment, if I’m not mistaken – who were laid off from their jobs in private sector. Every architectural company I talk to are running at 45-55% personnel compared to 2 years ago. Sit for an hour in waiting room of any NY Workforce1 branches in NYC – you’ll see thousands people, desperate for a job, any job; most of them lost their workplace “for reasons unconnected to their performance”. Do you ever look outside your safe cocoon?

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      Tell that to millions of Americans – about 15M at the moment, if I’m not mistaken – who were laid off from their jobs in private sector.

      Please read the context of the original quote. The entire discussion is about protecting teachers and by extension government workers from the caprice, incompetence or malice of political-managers. It said nothing about being laid off (there is a difference) owing to the failure of private businesses or a generally bad economy. Unions do not protect people from such circumstances, either.

    11. David Foster Says:

      Michael Kennedy….expanded career opportunities for women have removed a large source of cheap & intelligent labor for the schools…true that. And OVER THE SAME TIME PERIOD, teaching in public schools has been made much less attractive because of (a)the insistence on tolerating disruptive students, to the point that teaching is increasingly degrading and even physically dangerous, (b)the increasing bureaucratization and micromanagement of the classroom, and (c)the increasing mindlessness of the required ed-school classes.

      Take a shrinking labor pool for a job and at the same time make the job less attractive…the results should be pretty predictable.

    12. Bill Waddell Says:

      Thanks for the clarification Shannon. I certainly did some misinterpreting, as well. I would suggest, however, that a free market of sorts already exists for teachers within the public school system. While the hand of federal government is heavy on the schools they are still in fairly autonomous districts. If the superintendent and local poiliticos in District A are crappy to good teachers, those teachers can pull up stakes and take a job in District B where more enlightened leadership is more attuned to parents and students needs.

      Another angle I see missing from the broader teacher pay debate is that there are more teachers than jobs. Certainly district by district this varies, and there is an overall shortage of math and science teachers, but in general there are too many elementary school, English, history and other softer subject teachers relative to the demand. Teachers pay is lower than what many of them think is ‘fair’ simply because if they don’t like the pay there are plenty of people standing in line for most teaching job who will accept the pay scale. The free market is already having an impact.

    13. Michael Kennedy Says:

      And OVER THE SAME TIME PERIOD, teaching in public schools has been made much less attractive because of (a)the insistence on tolerating disruptive students, to the point that teaching is increasingly degrading and even physically dangerous, (b)the increasing bureaucratization and micromanagement of the classroom, and (c)the increasing mindlessness of the required ed-school classes.

      This is all true but most schools are safe and most teachers are years from Ed school except for getting CEUs and other degrees to increase pay.

      My ex-wife is my expert on public schools as I have avoided them since we divorced in 1978. She went back to teaching for a short while (6 months) in the early 90s. What she saw was a combination of bad teacher attitude and no reenforcement of good practice. Her school was in a lower middle class neighborhood of Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs. The teachers had low motivation and the principal seemed to spend his time wringing his hands as he had little power. She was teaching third grade and mentioned to a second grade teacher that her children were very well prepared for third grade reading. It was a compliment and, apparently, the only one the second grade teacher had ever gotten. NO ONE was interested in the success or failure of what they were doing. The second grade teacher burst into tears.

      It wouldn’t take a lot of motivation effort to improve performance and, without a union, the drones could be let go. They could then move into careers for which they were better suited. In the food service industry, for example.

      Interestingly enough, with an elementary education degree, she has worked for the FDIC full time since 2007 reorganizing and closing failed banks. She is in Denver right now finishing up another job and will be home this weekend. In the 1980s, she worked for the RTC closing failed S&Ls. She is 71 and not all that interested in working hard but the demand for her services seems insatiable. The FDIC flies her home every weekend and pays to board her dog when she is gone. For a while last year, she was commuting to Atlanta.

    14. Tatyana Says:

      Shannon,

      yes, I saw the premise and I understand your willing to cut some slack to public-employee’ argument that they need protection from being fired on a whim. Judging by the procedure of applying for a government job (that’s the extent of my personal familiarity with employment by the government) every step there is bureaucratized and is subject to rigorous instructions; in this atmosphere any manager who’s experienced in internal bureaucracy knows how to find suitable excuse for firing someone he took a dislike to.

      but that is also true for private sector. when you have situation that your boss calls you and order to lay off 4 people out of your group of 15 and leave it to your discretion, whom do you fire? of course, some companies have extensive policies on this matter – but most of small/midsize firms don’t, and people who end up fired are not necessarily bad specialists or even bad “team-players” – more likely than not they are people the manager personally dislikes.

      NY labor law, for instance, does not require an employee to give a 2-week notice before quitting his job – and reversely, does not require an employer to give any warning to an employee. Employer has legal right to fire someone for any reason within hours; I know numerous examples in financial firms when someone is called to a manager’s office at noon, told he’s “let go” and returns to his desk to find a security guard waiting for him for an hour to collect his personal affects and to be escorted out the building -<as a standard procedure, not a personal slight. I know of at least one example when after several months of employment and satisfactory job performance a person was taken outside for coffee by her supervisor, told that she “doesn’t fit” and that the supervisor will pack her personal things and mail them to her, and that she is not allowed to return to the office.

      Where is a protection against these whims in private sector? There is none. Life is tough and not necessarily just, we all accept it, and we adapt to circumstances.

      Instead of trying to establish some sort of safety system for teachers in particular I think much more fruitful proposition would be to leave such “foot soldiers” of public employ to work according to contracts as they exist for private education – but concentrate of numerous, multiple, plentiful (I don’t have enough vocabulary to describe the cancer) government agencies that are shady, invisible and oruellesque in their supposed purpose and influence. Even starting in schools – all those administrators, social workers, guidance councilors and their assistants and deputies – who are they and why do we need them more than teachers? What about endless committees in Department of Education? When I was designing courthouses, do you know how many mysterious-purpose government agencies one courthouse building is supposed to house? Typically from 29 to 35. And Corrections, PD, DA and Court Clerks are usually the only logical and recognizable.
      I don’t want these people to have job protection. On the contrary, I want their jobs demolished, their activities stopped, their meddling in public affairs canceled.

    15. Tom Holsinger Says:

      I have told my right wing friends for years that there will be school teachers’ unions as long as there are school administrators, and I learned that from my father whose business sold public seating, including to schools. It is also true in my personal experience. Public school administrators have major tendencies towards pettiness and vanity which is frequently taken out on teachers, who really do need the protection of formal rules from arbitrary action by school administrators.

      It is quite true that egotistical public school administrators can get away with such crap because public schools are immune from market discipline by definition, but this really begs the question. Public schools simply won’t be privatized. The immediate consumers of their products are children, not responsible adults, and childrens’ attendance in school someplace is mandatory. Ordinary market pressure simply does not exist in that environment.

      There are no easy answers here.

    16. Shannon Love Says:

      Bill Waddell,

      I would suggest, however, that a free market of sorts already exists for teachers within the public school system. … If the superintendent and local poiliticos in District A are crappy to good teachers, those teachers can pull up stakes and take a job in District B where more enlightened leadership is more attuned to parents and students needs.

      That is true and it is what happens over very long time scales but the immediate feedback to individual managers is so attenuated at to make it functionally negligible. The reason the effect is so small is that it cost the consumer, in this case parents, a great deal to “pull up stakes.”

      Imagine if the only way you could choose between, say, Walmart and Target was by quitting your job, selling your house and moving to another town. You would put up with a great deal of bad service from either before breaking down and paying the cost.

      Moreover, with the increasing centralization of school management in the state and Federal level, changing school districts means less and less. Most people change districts to sort the students, based on income, than the practices of any given district.

      I agree that we have to many “teachers” pursuing to few jobs. In part that is the result of teachers being overpaid relative to their education requirements for the job. Teacher get paid based on the social status of their profession and not based on the free-market price of what it takes to get a person qualified to do the job. In short, you can cost through college and get a better paying job than you would if you got a harder degree and went out into the free-market.

    17. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      Where is a protection against these whims in private sector?

      The protections, such as they are, come from the market punishing those managers who make bad decisions. Overtime, best employment practice evolve within companies or companies go out of business. However, these are statistical protections of free-market workers as a group and not formal protections of individual workers in every circumstance.

      I suppose in rereading the parent that I might have sounded to sympathetic towards the argument that teachers need unions to protect. I don’t really think they do. Texas has never had teacher unions but rather voluntary associations that teachers join based on individual choice. The associations provide job protection for teachers by (1) providing representation before boards and during civil service lawsuits and (2) tracking the reputations of both districts and individual managers. A few years ago, one bad superintendent essentially got run out of the state because the associations hounded him from post to post because of his dishonest actions.

      I originally just wanted to make the points that (1) the argument that teachers and other public-sector workers might have a special need for unions was not, based on free-market principles, an immediately fallacious argument and (2) that even given (1) the solution was not more unions but more exposure to the free-market, preferably by moving every education function except funding into private and individual hands.

      So, I don’t think you and I really have any disagreement. I dont’ think I wrote to clearly. I was thinking more of trying to convince someone who believed in unions rather my usual libertarian audience. Sorry for the confusion.

    18. Tatyana Says:

      Thank you for clarification, Shannon.
      I only wish there were voluntary associations for design trade professionals like the one you described that teachers in Texas have. We do have plenty of professionals associations (“clubs”, as my former boss called them) – AIA, IIDA, ASID, IDMA, etc – and they all claim to work in supporting the profession and public awareness for the services, etc – but I never heard them sending a representative to be involved in labor disputes or civil suits of individual architects and designers. The most of beneficial effort I heard on their part was NCIDQ’ participation in lobbying State of Florida for licensing of the designers – not the activity I, as a libertarian, am greatly fond of.

      I certainly agree with you that exposure to free market will benefit educators in public schools – just like demolishing rent control will straighten distorted real estate market.

    19. David Foster Says:

      Michael K…”This is all true but most schools are safe and most teachers are years from Ed school except for getting CEUs and other degrees to increase pay”..But teachers who have been on the job for 15 years are those who were willing to put up with ed school as it existed 15 years ago…and those we will have 15 years from now, unless something changes, will be those willing to put up with ed school as it exists today. (It is interesting that so many academics are willing to put effort into keeping ROTC on their campuses, but are unwilling to do anything toward reforming or destroying the ed schools, which surely they must be aware are generally a disgrace)

      “The teachers had low motivation and the principal seemed to spend his time wringing his hands as he had little power”…indeed, there has been much discussion about teacher quality and accountability but very little about administrator quality and accountability. In business, I’m not going to put my sales reps on a stringent performance-based compensation & retention plan and then give the sales manager a level of job security amounting to tenure. Administrators need to be empowered AND held accountable if improvement is to happen.

      “She was teaching third grade and mentioned to a second grade teacher that her children were very well prepared for third grade reading. It was a compliment and, apparently, the only one the second grade teacher had ever gotten. NO ONE was interested in the success or failure of what they were doing. The second grade teacher burst into tears”….a painful example of an utter lack of leadership. The principal, the superintendent, and all those people & institutions involved in their education and selection failed, and failed big time.

    20. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      I only wish there were voluntary associations for design trade professionals like the one you described that teachers in Texas have.

      Such associations will only work when there are monopoly employers. The members have to see the employer as their major competitor and not their peers. With diverse, multiple and competing employers, when one peer loses a job, that opens up a slot for a competing peer. That effect is not as strong with public monopoly employers.

      There are a lot of professional organizations but they mainly concentrate on maintaining the public reputation of the profession for the benefit of all.

    21. sol vason Says:

      Civil service laws protect the teachers. They were designed to prevent government employees being fired each time the government changed hands from one party to the next. The protections are very broad. Union rules simply do not add any protection. But they do justify collecting membership dues.