How Should Red States Combat Liberal Education and Teachers Unions?

In this March 5, 2011, file photo, people protest against legislative efforts to do away with teachers’ collective bargaining rights in Nashville, Tenn. The measure passed in Tennessee this year and ended collective bargaining for teachers unions in the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

In the wake of Janus v. AFSCME, many labor unions have worried about a major loss of dues revenue. In fact, the author of the majority opinion in the case, Justice Samuel Alito, recognized that the Supreme Court’s decision in the case would ultimately place a huge financial burden on public-sector unions because they specifically deal in labor issues that affect all employees in a field, not just their members.

As a result, teacher unions, in particular, have taken action. We are seeing higher rates of teacher strikes and walkouts, and we are finding that even deeply conservative states are more willing to try and offset those strikes with increased compensation for teachers (among other concessions). There is a problem, though, with teacher shortages, lack of enthusiasm about entering the field, and a substantial bureaucratic burden placed on teachers that forces them to leave rather than deal with more paperwork than instructional time.

The truth of the matter is that states should simply not be so accepting of the guarantee of strikes and so quickly capitulate to those labor forces unconditionally. Paying more without getting some sort of improvement in service is not going to make education better, as we have seen the countless times we’ve thrown money at education only to watch things continue to get worse.

Complicating matters is that the conservative reform ideas come either in creating competition (allowing more private and charter schools, pushing for school choice, etc.) or increasing measures of teacher accountability (test scores, observation requirements, etc.). If you were trying to improve the quality of the teacher, you could put stricter teacher licensure requirements (like Massachusetts did in 1998), but that could have the adverse effect of scaring new teachers away. Likewise, new accountability measures could make older teachers decide to leave the system rather than having to put up with those new measures.

Such outcomes only increase the problems teachers who remain in the system face. Teacher shortages would result in bigger class sizes, and new expectations would accelerate teacher burnout. The cycle of dysfunction would continue.

Sure, teaching is more a vocation than a job for many people. It is something teachers have always felt they were meant to do, even if they didn’t know it at first. That doesn’t mean they’ll stick with it if the conditions are rotten – and in many cases, the conditions are.

Consider, too, that conservative states do not simply tax and spend their way to paying for education. There would undoubtedly be necessary cuts to make room for increased expenses.

So, this leaves a very weird jigsaw puzzle for policymakers to try and piece together, and there are not very many models that fit the picture we’re trying to paint.

Raising taxes impedes growth and investment, and this is just as true in the states as it is in national politics. Increasing taxes not only takes more money out of the pockets of citizens, but it also forces out and keeps out new businesses. When teacher salaries, due to the public employee status of teachers, are dependent on tax revenue, chasing economic growth away runs counter to the goal of increasing teacher pay.

By encouraging economic growth, you begin to solve the long-term problem of funding teacher pay increases, but what do you do to get teachers to “earn” higher pay? In order to attract more teachers in your state, you can begin to use some of those funds generated to increase the base pay to keep yourself competitive with neighboring states. However, that should not be where pay increases end.

In the private sector, you rarely get a raise without some sort of conditions being met. You are a hard worker, you accomplish specific tasks, you achieve certain conditions, etc. The same, then, should be held true for teachers. Teachers who continuously score highly in both student test results and their own administrators’ evaluations should be rewarded with increased pay. It shouldn’t be something guaranteed, but it shouldn’t be something impossible to achieve, either. It is not terribly difficult to get most of your students adequately prepared for a standardized test. It is a challenge, however, to get the lowest scores up to the class average and to get the highest scores to perform even higher. That’s where the real evaluations need to begin coming in.

Part of that is built into the standardized testing system, but all too often we focus solely on how kids performed as though it’s in some sort of vacuum. There are many factors that should be judged. How well did these students perform this year as opposed to last year? How well did this year’s students perform compared to last year’s students? How much did your lowest performers grow? Did your highest performers continue to grow? All these questions have to fit into the equation somewhere.

Along with this “pay for performance” model, you also need to offer extra incentives that would bring the good teachers into low-income and low-performance schools, as is the case in the Dallas Independent School District. Programs like that, however, require a lot of money to operate – even the folks in charge of the DISD admit that more state funding is needed to keep it going, which requires better budgeting practices by state legislatures.

Accountability has to be part of the equation, and if the teachers and the unions want to see those pay hikes, they’re going to have to prove they’ve earned them. Conservative governors and legislatures can’t simply hand over the money over the threat of a strike. The teachers have to provide some sort of proof it’s been earned, outside of “I’ve taught these kids for years now and I deserve something for the emotional trauma they’ve caused me.”

Teachers do a good job. I’m not saying the whole profession is sitting around doing nothing. However, you can’t simply throw money at them and expect the same quality of education in our schools. In fact, you should expect better quality of education if they are going to be making more from it.


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