Final Thoughts on Education and Teachers' Unions

Despite the heated debate, there is a great deal of common ground between me and the people I’ve been arguing with about education. I think that good teachers should be paid more, that more money should be spent on teacher salaries (though less should be spent on off-site administrators, maintenance workers, janitors, etc., at least in CA), that a child’s family income and environment impacts the education he or she receives far more than anything that goes on inside the classroom, that vouchers aren’t a cure all, that teacher’s unions are NOT the biggest problem with the American educational system, that performance pay based on test scores is a terrible idea, and that even if you could fire bad teachers easily, you’d need to do all sorts of other stuff to make our public school system adequate for its least advantaged pupils.

What I find frustrating is that so many of those arguments were offered as though they obviate the need for a better incentive structure for teachers, or an easier way to fire bad teachers. A respected newspaper launches a major investigation into one of America’s largest public school districts, documents numerous instances where unqualified teachers couldn’t be fired (and exact a hefty financial burden on the public education system), despite a concerted effort by administrators to get them off the books. The response among some in comments? It’s irrelevant, and you obviously only care about it because suddenly you’ve become a right-wing hack. Or it’s unfortunate, but the solution you’ve offered — weaken California’s teachers’ unions — is a bad idea. Given the cost to pupils, it’s the kind of moment where Freddie ought to be demanding of critics who don’t like my solution, “And then what?

As I noted above, teacher’s unions are NOT the biggest problem with the American educational system — but they are the most powerful interest group blocking potentially viable reforms meant to address the biggest problems. (John says this quite well in this post.) In fact, I wonder whether John and I feel so strongly about this because California’s teachers’ union is a particularly powerful political player in the state, relative to teachers’ unions in many other places. As a Californian, I’ve maybe seen their shamefully dishonest campaign ads, outsize political influence, maximalist rhetoric in newspaper stories, absurdly propagandistic newsletter and intimidation of dissident teachers one too many times to write about them without an edge of disdain. Nor do I worry that absent a union teachers would be paid a pittance — the voters of California have shown themselves willing to increase taxes to fund education, to dedicate a percentage of the budget to schools, and to pay its teachers at the highest rate in the nation last I checked.