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Director's Corner: Thoughts on schools, teachers and unions

*The subtitle of a MIPFS position paper, "Why educating kids isn't like building cars," can get a couple of interesting reactions.* For some, it confirms the idea that unions have no place in the schools. For others, it smacks of a betrayal of union solidarity. I didn't mean either of those things when I wrote it, and now seems like a good time to explain what we do mean by that phrase. It's interesting that, in these times of great difficulty, many people seem to want to blame organized workers for the economy's problems rather than the owners and executives who manage our nation's companies. No doubt that there is plenty of blame to go around, and when unions and management negotiate in the private sector, the interests of the broader public and economy are not at the table. But even such an authentic conservative as William Kristol was moved to wonder why the auto industry was taking such heat for their bailout requests when the banking industry was treated so much better as it successfully lobbied for a bailout many times larger ("see the article here":http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/15/opinion/15kristol.html). Here in Michigan, public opinion seems divided between those who see the United Auto Workers (and industrial unions generally) as a bulwark against economic exploitation and others who see them as the root of all our economic problems. Given the tremendous decline in manufacturing employment, there appear to be more people with the latter view than the former. The accuracy of this excoriation of unions is questionable, given that the UAW has made substantial concessions in recent years, including a path-breaking plan to relieve the auto companies of the burden of retiree health care by creating special entities. But the feelings persist. And this brings us to schools, and our teachers, who are generally represented by public sector unions such as the Michigan Education Association or the Michigan Federation of Teachers. As with the auto industry, the first objection to be raised in any discussion of school funding is that unionized teachers have outsized pay, outsized benefits, unjustified job security, or a combination of all three. You can see it in the comments to any article on school funding posted to a newspaper's web site. On the other hand, there are (still) teachers who are very defensive of their union and angry about the concessions they have been and will be asked to make. As usual, the truth can be found somewhere in the middle. But it is a huge mistake to draw direct parallels between management and labor in the private sector, and administrators and unionized teachers in the public schools. Why? Here are some reasons:
  1. *Our "profit" is our future*
    When auto execs and union reps negotiate, the issue is profit and how it gets distributed. But there is no "profit" at stake in the public schools, and school administrators do not stand to get a bonus if teachers are paid less. The third, invisible, party at the school negotiating table is the general public. Our common stake in these negotiations is what we get out of our public schools, for our children and for our community. It is the public which, in theory, directs our elected school boards to place resources into some things and remove them from others. Our main dilemma is the tradeoff between keeping some dollars in our wallets now and investing those dollars in education for a future payoff. All the evidence shows that the payoff to investments in education is significant, but are we willing to make that sacrifice? And can we make sure the money is used effectively?
  2. *Professionalism and productivity*
    Part of what makes teaching a professional calling is that it's hard to measure teaching "productivity." You can count how many units come off an assembly line each day, and you can count the number of manufacturing defects. But it's different with teachers - like doctors, you can get a sense of who is very good and who is less good, but measuring it in a simple and reliable way is difficult. At the same time, the shaping of young minds is not something easily parceled out into a certain number of minutes of each working day. Most teachers commit themselves above and beyond what is required by contract because their students are important to them; contractual provisions borrowed from the manufacturing sector do a disservice to teachers who are giving so much of themselves.
  3. *"Teachers as professionals"*
    What would be more appropriate? Teaching - like medicine or law - is a specialty that requires a solid education and continuing professional development. Like doctors and lawyers, not all teachers are equally suited to the demands of the profession and to particular roles. Offering competitive compensation at the start is important for attracting qualified applicants. Incentives to continue with professional education are important to develop strong, mature professionals. Support for professional development, coupled with intelligent and unbiased performance reviews, help ensure quality teaching. It is precisely because we cannot "count defects" at the end of each shift that it becomes so important to demand thoroughly educated teachers and to compensate them appropriately.
  4. *School finance vise*
    Michigan's school finance system gives the two visible players at the negotiating table precious little room to maneuver. The residents of school districts have very few options for committing more money to running their schools, and the crucial decisions are made in Lansing. How much the state allows districts to spend running their schools depends on economic conditions: the bulk of our school funding comes from the sales tax, the proceeds from which can fall rapidly. Many districts have seen their operating funds lose ground against inflation since 1994, when Proposal A took effect. Nearly all districts have seen flat or declining real funding for operations since 2001. With health care costs rising several times the rate of inflation, districts have been in a continual squeeze. Schools, unlike private companies, do not have the option to adjust their prices to cover costs. This leaves them with unpalatable choices: cut pay and/or benefits to teachers, making it hard to keep good ones; or cutting programs and increasing class sizes, which undermines the quality of education. (And let's not forget that our school districts are often major employers in the communities they serve, so pay cuts and layoffs hurt the local economy directly.)
  5. *Demand > Supply*
    Finally, we need to remember that private firms lose money because demand falls for their product. Owners and workers can make sacrifices to hold out until things recover. But the demand for a quality education has never been higher. Good schools not only power the economy of the future, but they are crucial to attracting people and employers to our communities. We can't simply make fewer students; the choice we have is how much to invest in the education of each one. Our communities cannot afford a "lost generation" of kids who got sub-standard educations, and we cannot afford to scare off businesses who want to locate in communities with strong schools.
There is a lot at stake, and people will have legitimate and strong disagreements over how much to invest in education, where it should go, and how to make sure it works. But we cannot make sound choices about our schools until we understand how they are different from the private firms where so many of us work and what the impact of our decisions will be - now and in the future.
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