Monday, October 11, 2010

Air Traffic Controllers and teachers ...

Sometime around 1982 I took a class in labor economics. The labor professor, Hirschel Kasper, I think, was considered the best of the econ department. Of course when you study labor economics, you have to look at unions. At the time, unions were getting the bad rap, what with the decline of manufacturing in the 1970's and the firing of the Air Traffic Controllers. Kasper liked to tell anecdotes as well as give us the statistics and graphs. He recounted the story of railroad "firemen" whose were still "working" on diesel locomotives because of the union rules, despite having no wood or coal to shovel into a (non-existent) fire to run the (non-existent) boiler on the train. But Kasper pointed out that statistically train accidents (big, ugly expensive things) went down for those trains. Those firemen, sitting around doing nothing, looked out the window and spotted the potential accidents before they became accidents. Not that that is a very productive use of labor resources, but, you know, big ugly expensive accidents.

So I learned a long time ago to try to keep an open mind about unions (if nothing else). Historically of course they were the counter weight to companies who saw workers as faceless, easily replicable inputs into the assembly line. By the 1970's, though, as I said, unions were blamed for the decline in US manufacturing. Since then we have seen service unions, including or particularly teacher's unions, come under attack. The teacher's unions are seen as the primary culprit in the decline in public education.

Now, the rules of employment are interestingly complex in education, both at the university and grade school levels, though for obviously different reasons. Tenure is the big issue for post secondary institutions; for better or worse, it preserves academic freedom or perhaps it protects bad professors. In secondary education there is also tenure in at least some districts, and also usually unions. Again there is the question of whether unions protect bad teachers, or help keep classes smaller, or do both simultaneously.

Without even attempting to answer any of those questions, I will step right up to a bit of what the government has done in the last ten years. I assume we all understand that “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was an anti union bill. Lower performing schools (ie, those in poor neighborhoods) would be shut down and parents would be “allowed” to send there kids to better schools. No mention of who was going to pay for this, or how better schools would react to or even be able to accept a large number of new students. But that wasn’t the federal government’s problem; the important thing is that schools were held accountable. No one looked at or even mentioned 25% unemployment rates, single moms only fourteen years older than their children (and thus not having even a high school degree) or any of the other problems of low income neighborhoods. I have to say what I found most amazing was that Teddy Kennedy was a cosponsor on this bill.

Flash forward nine years and the new big thing is charter schools. There is that documentary “Waiting for Superman”, which has already had caveats assigned to it. Just today Ross Douthat wrote a column which had faint praise for charter schools, but claims this does not damn them; it shows they are sufficiently superior we should embrace them. Douthat says that charter schools may not outperform public schools in test scores, and in fact a week or so ago Gail Collins wrote that 17% outperform public schools, while roughly a third trail them, although she didn’t reveal what that meant specifically (test scores, grades, graduation rates?), But Douthat tells us Charter Schools have other value, including “money saved (both charter and private schools usually spend much less per pupil than their public competitors), in improved graduation rates, and in higher parental and student satisfaction”. I would highlight the money saved part, and further point out this Douthat’s second paragraph, “the plight of children trapped in failing schools with lousy, union-protected teachers”. Charter schools as a group are well known for being almost entirely non-union shops.

Douthat’s source for this column is Frederick Hess, who wrote an essay recently “Does School Choice Work?”. Hess is an ‘education scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess (via Douthat) says that instead of (tax) money going to school boards and thus schools, it should go to students, who will bring it to the school of their choice, whatever that school may be.

Bad enough that Douthat is trying to get private or even religious schools funded with taxpayer money (and public schools defunded), but I can’t help but think that Hess and Douthat have brought us to a hop and a skip of saying that not only should the student’s school money stay with him, but his or her parents specific tax should stay with the student (only fair, after all, mom and dad (or great grand dad, but whose counting) bought that mansion and pay taxes on it; why shouldn’t Thurston junior benefit from those taxes?), We have certainly heard similar logic used in talking about double taxation in the inheritance/estate tax and capital gains taxes.

Meanwhile, behind the rather overt attempt to privatize education is an additional more subtle attack on unions, the teachers union in particular. Now, I am as willing as anyone to say bad teachers should be weeded out of the profession. What may surprise you is that the anyone in this case are the leaders of the teacher’s unions. Whether it is because they see the handwriting on the wall or because they truly are dedicating to providing the best education for our children (your children, I have none), union leaders have made a point of saying they support local district goals of getting specific bad teachers out of the classroom.

In this kind of battle/war, however, perception often trumps reality. I urge all of us to step back and look and think and consider what’s best for all children, maybe particularly the ones that don’t get that high school diploma, and grow up to be the group that has the 14% unemployment now.

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