April 11, 2005

Low Teacher Salaries: Have Unions Made the Problem Worse?

The abysmal performance of America's public schools is a well-documented fact and has been discussed in a previous posting.

George Will has written last week on an idea about how to get more productive public schools:

Patrick Byrne, a 42-year-old bear of a man who bristles with ideas that have made him rich and restless, has an idea that can provide a new desktop computer for every student in America without costing taxpayers a new nickel. Or it could provide 300,000 new $40,000-a-year teachers without any increase in taxes. His idea -- call it the 65 Percent Solution -- is politically delicious because it unites parents, taxpayers and teachers while, he hopes, sowing dissension in the ranks of the teachers unions, which he considers the principal institutional impediment to improving primary and secondary education.

The idea, which will face its first referendum in Arizona, is to require that 65 percent of every school district's education operational budget be spent on classroom instruction. On, that is, teachers and pupils, not bureaucracy.

Nationally, 61.5 percent of education operational budgets reach the classrooms. Why make a fuss about 3.5 percent? Because it amounts to $13 billion...

To see how much money would flow into your state's classrooms under Byrne's approach, go to FirstClassEducation.org.

The horrible performance of our public schools requires us to challenge the status quo within the overpaid and underperforming public education bureaucracy. Nonetheless, it is unclear how this proposal, while provocative, will change educational outcomes. It does not address the structural problems within public education that ensure there are no meaningful incentives for excellence.

However, on a tangentially-related topic, I found comments in the article by Chester Finn, Jr. offered an interesting perspective on teachers' salaries:

Much of the reallocated money under the 65 percent requirement would go for better pay for teachers, which is wiser than just adding more teachers. Chester Finn, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, notes that, while the number of pupils grew 50 percent in the past half-century, the number of teachers grew almost 300 percent. That pleased dues-collecting teachers unions and tuition-charging education schools. But if the number of teachers had grown apace with enrollments, and school budgets had risen as they have, teachers' salaries today would average nearly $100,000 instead of less than half that.

America, says Finn, has invested in more rather than better teachers -- at a time when career opportunities were expanding for the able women who once were the backbone of public education. The fact that teachers' salaries have just kept pace with inflation, in spite of enormous expansions of school budgets, explains why too often teachers are drawn "from the lower ranks of our lesser universities."

Yet another example of where the structural incentives of teachers unions are not aligned with excellence in education. Now, isn't that a surprise?