Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Always look for the union label

So, the great Chicago teacher strike is apparently a big deal?  I'm not sure I get it. The strike is legal, right? I can't see it lasting too long if the teachers are not getting paid. Do they have a big strike fund?

Sure, we can debate whether public employees should be unionized at all. Whether taxpayers get left out of the negotiations when "management" feels more kinship to the teachers than to those paying the bill. And it's true that unfunded pension liabilities are a real problem in many states.

But the Chicago teachers are playing by the rules as far as I can tell, so what exactly is the problem?

This piece by Freddie DeBoer got me thinking about the strike (thanks to @modeledbehavior). I highly recommend reading it, not because I agree with him, but because it is extremely entertaining.

Among many other things, Freddie rails about people who want the best and brightest to go into teaching but then think teachers get paid too much.

But here's the thing. It doesn't make sense for society to have the best and brightest go into teaching. We don't need geniuses teaching in elementary school! The opportunity cost is just too high (and yes I know the studies showing a good kindergarten teacher affects lifetime earnings).

Nor does it make sense to (as Freddie does) compare Ezra Klein's salary with the average Chicago teacher salary. Ezra is a blogger. A very good blogger. He has risen up to his current position based on his skill at entertaining and informing people. Certainly the average (or at least the median) salary of a blogger is quite a bit below the average (or at least the median) salary for a Chicago school teacher.

But Ezra is a super-star and is compensated accordingly. Would Freddie and the teachers unions accept this kind of pay-scheme? Big money for superstar teachers, peanuts for the crappy ones.

In higher education, salaries generally differ according to field and accomplishments. Assistant professors of economics generally make more than assistant professors in philosophy even inside the same institution. Holding field constant, better published and better cited professors generally make more than lesser published and cited professors.

Would the teachers unions allow science teachers to be paid more than english teachers?

Higher pay for all teachers is an answer in search of a relevant public policy question. In other words, it's great for (some of) the teachers, and they are certainly playing by the rules to seek it, but it doesn't really solve any of the issues we may have with education in this country.


Anonymous said...

I'm a middle school English/history teacher and I think high quality math and science teachers at the high school level should be paid more than other subjects.
I don't think most of my colleagues would agree though.

Anonymous said...

Angus, What is your opinion regarding tenure for school teachers?

kebko said...

I think it's high time that we listened to teachers' unions. They have told us time and again that public school institutions are universally incapable of using discretion in a function as basic as determining the value of their employees. That would truly be a broken institution. We would be remiss if we subjected our children to such an environment.

Dave Hansen said...

Oh, Freddie... So his argument is that since we need to attract the best and brightest to education, we should raise the salary of ALL teachers who are tenured and can't easily be fired.

Awesome. Let's give the worst teachers even more incentive to hold on to their jobs. Genius idea.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the strike is illegal. In IL, public unions can only strike over pay. From what I've read, the union is OK with the pay offer, not OK with teachers' performance being evaluated.

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