Monday, February 27, 2006

The Magic of the Marketplace In Education

My wife volunteers with the PTA organization at our elementary school. Her position gets her on some emailing lists, including that of the state’s largest educator union, the Utah Education Association. During the legislative session the UEA’s highly charged emails arrive at an extreme rate, making it difficult to digest them all.

A couple of weeks ago my wife felt that a bill in which she had taken particular interest had been mischaracterized in a UEA email. She sent an email expressing her concern about this and stating her understanding of the actual facts. She received a response that was filled with more mischaracterization, blatant falsehoods, and straw man arguments. That simply burned her toast.

This morning I asked her to read LaVarr Webb’s excellent opinion piece about public education (here – scroll down to Publisher’s Opinion). She responded with three cheers for LaVarr’s clear-headed position. Speaking from personal experience, Webb says, “While I love public schools, I don’t love public school unions. They have killed meaningful school reform over and over again. It doesn’t matter how reasonable the program.”

But Webb’s article is far from a mere criticism of educator unions. He says, “I want to improve public schools, pay teachers more, and increase overall funding for public schools.” He is tired of three decades of reform efforts that “do nothing of substance.” He strongly advocates a voucher system like the one proposed by Rep. Stuart Adams.

Why vouchers? Citing the “the magic of the marketplace,” Webb says, “Giving parents control of education spending would drive improvements faster than anything else.” Of course, the UEA argues that the whole world will come to an end if vouchers become law. Never mind the successful programs that are in place in several parts of the country, some of which are being destroyed by educator unions (see here).

Why are educator unions so opposed to meaningful education reform? Terry I. Moe cogently explains this here. He argues that educator unions are not trying to behave badly, but that by their nature they simply are not designed nor equipped to do what’s best for the children they claim to be so concerned about. The unions’ “behavior is driven by fundamental interests [that] have to do with the jobs, working conditions, and material well-being of teachers.”

This is not to say that educator unions are all bad or that they don’t have a role to play in our education system. But our public policy has inappropriately made them nearly the sole party of interest in regulating the education of our children. We have failed to recognize them for what they really are.

Unions, by their very nature, will oppose any reform that reduces their power. (Yes, this is all about power). They have a near monopoly, and they’re not going to give up even the minutest portion of it easily. Moe forecasts that the unions’ monopoly will be broken “when the public speaks out [giving] politicians … the courage--and the electoral incentive--to do the right thing.” Webb sees that day coming. He says, “the union eventually will lose. The tide is turning and they can’t hold back destiny.”

I don’t think educator unions should be crushed. But for the sake of our children and grandchildren these unions need to be relegated to their appropriate role. I hope that the future envisioned by LaVarr Webb is not too distant.


Anonymous said...

I'm convinced that public sector monopolies are very bad for us. This is more than just education. For instance the way the sanitation workers of New York City can hold the entire city hostage. If there was competition, than the whole city couldn't be held hostage. Utah isn't to bad in this regard, but I personally believe that as many government services as posible should be put out for bid. And as many as posible should simply cease being gov't services.

plaidspolitics said...

This is the reason I don't pay PTA dues. I use my time to participate in a direct way with my children's education rather than volunteering for an organization with political affiliations for which I do not always agree. Reading through your blog, I'm surprised that if your wife feels as you do that her conscience allows her to invest in the PTA. I'm somewhat curious about how she resolves this conflict, or if it is one that she considers significant?

Scott Hinrichs said...

When my wife first became involved with the PTA she was unaware of its broader agenda. She saw only the direct work volunteers did at our local school. Now she sees herself as one fighting to change the organization from within.

The PTA volunteers at our kids' schools still do fantastic work that has nothing to do with the broader PTA agenda. The parents that do this work not only directly impact their own kids' education; they also help impact school policies. The organization gives them a platform for participation, even if they cannot support the broader multi-culti agenda.