Teachers Unions

TEACHERS UNIONS….It’s funny how I keep getting dragged into writing about education, even though it’s a topic I generally prefer to stay away from. (Why? Lack of knowledge, basically.) But I was struck this morning by Megan McArdle’s latest plea for liberals to support a voucher system:

Come over to our side, outline a voucher plan you’d accept, and as long as it doesn’t include “all schools must employ union teachers under centrally negotiated contracts that protect seniority and outlandish grievance procedures”, I’ll sign on. Central testing? Fine. You want to make sure they serve organic seaweed salad in the lunchroom? If that’s what it takes to get you and other liberals into the voucher camp, I’ll agree to that too. Double spending per student, for all I care.

Now, I’ll confess that my support for unions isn’t the most full-throated you’re going to find. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for unionization efforts in low-wage service industries, a little bit less for old-line manufacturing unions, and less still for public sector unions. But even so, I find this remarkable.

Double spending per student, for all I care. Sure, sure, this is hyperbole, but even so it represents a pretty straightforward admission of what many of us have always suspected: voucher proposals are really just a stalking horse to bust teachers unions. It implicitly assumes that the biggest contributors to poor public education in America — so big that it’s worth literally anything to get rid of them — is the existence of grievance procedures and seniority.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to back this up. Unions appear to have, at most, modest and variable effects on student outcomes. Even the most hostile reading of the evidence doesn’t come anywhere close to suggesting that unions are the single biggest obstacle in the way of educating our children properly. And it doesn’t come within light years of suggesting that it would be worth doubling spending to get rid of them. This is anti-unionism run wild. Hating teachers unions because they oppose policies you like is one thing, but hating them even if you get your favorite policies enacted is crazy.

As for those grievance procedures, I don’t doubt that they can misused. On the other hand, if you want to see an example of what can happen without them, read this story. Nickel version: you can be fired for anything. Even protesting a front office decision forbidding you from presenting a program about Emmett Till.