21 February 2011

Breaking unions

I have mixed reactions here on these various state bills floating around (including of course, the one in Ohio).

Basically I have no problem with teachers (or most workers, including public workers) having unions for collective bargaining purposes. My preference would be that teachers are not employed or contracted with by the state anyway, which would mean they would be a private-sector union rather than a public sector union and neatly avoiding this whole bugaboo. Though that doesn't seem to be happening, and isn't remotely curious (many people do not seem to like school choice, including these supposed advocates, Republicans). I'm somewhat curious why in Wisconsin the police and firefighters are excluded, though it's not actually politically surprising that this happens (after all, cynically speaking, those are the groups which backed the Republican governor).

My real curiosity is what those unions are doing defending incompetent employees and negotiating, strangely, for better benefits (pensions especially) instead of more direct pay. Other than more or more flexible vacation time, there are not "benefits" that are of any actual value that exceeds that you can get out of having someone pay you more money and spending that money on these purported benefits yourself. Many teacher retirement funds I've seen are rip-offs for example, complete with excessive fees and relatively low pay offs. So more or less what my curiosity is is not why are there teacher unions, it's more like, what are these teachers doing defending the ones they have and instead demanding better unions that actually give them useful things.

Benefits are generally non-taxable forms of income, true, but the larger portion of these taxable benefits accrue not to employees, but their employers (health care in particular). Pensions are usually deferred tax, rather than actual non-tax, which is again a bad deal (depending on who issues the pensions, some of them are federally excluded, most are just state-tax excluded). Tax rates are low. They seem to be going up, at some point. And I'd rather pay low taxes than high ones.

I see a lot of resistance to introducing competition into teaching, or to schools generally. Especially from teacher's unions themselves. I think this is foolish. Teachers should want to extract the best benefits they can for themselves, but they should not want to carry deadweight, or to captured into doing things only the way they are permitted to do them by state or local school boards say they can do them. One of the largest impediments to better quality teaching is the lack of better quality people going into the profession. Money is one incentive, but it's not actually the primary one (it is a problem in the sense that pay is set out based on seniority which does provide some perverse incentives of its own, but it's not a problem in the sense that the sort of people who would make good teachers would necessarily want to be well paid if they are a better teacher). The primary problem is the lack of control and professional respect. Creative people may not want monetary incentives, but does not mean they do not have incentives. In other countries, with better education systems than here, such as Finland or Singapore, there is not only a greater degree of cooperation between teachers, as well as innovative freedom to design a lot more of your own course material.

As for police in particular, police unions really should not be in the business of defending bad cops, and in forcing out good ones who call others out for their bullshit. And this seems like a way too popular event, in some jurisdictions becoming increasingly opaque rather than a transparent process with citizen input and participation. Being a cop, much like being a teacher, should not mean that you can get away with ridiculous, even illegal, actions and still get to keep doing your job. It all too often does mean exactly this. It is this, by far, which annoys and agitates the general public against the actions of unions (see "Rubber Room" in NYC, the new DC school contract which allows dismissals only after 100 days of arbitration to fire someone, which was actually progress from the previous arrangement, or virtually any criminal act which a cop is accused of). Being unable to dismiss incompetent personnel is one thing, certainly a problem, but given our ability to form a market economy for schools and make sounder determinations of competency or incompetency regarding public sector employees like teachers or cops, it's kind of a side issue. Being unable to properly and swiftly dismiss reckless, dangerous, or destructive personnel is another thing entirely.

Side note: I don't think test scores are a very good measure for teacher evaluations. It's possible that looking at progress from year to year on test score measures may be a useful tool to have in a toolkit for administrators to evaluate good teachers from bad, but if it makes up more than about a quarter of an evaluation I think we're getting away from what makes up good teaching and spending too much time teaching to a test. I'd stress things like parent-student evaluations, peer evaluations, administrator evaluations, and doing things like placing a lot more free time for teachers during the school day to be spent in other teacher's classrooms, or to just flat out start hiring a lot more teachers (many to replace the chaff being culled or be fired themselves) in order to have a wider pool of talent available. I think merit pay is probably fine, but really what is needed to fix the system is to introduce much more educator freedom over curriculum and that's mostly what a school choice system is needed for, to allow for this sort of market experimentation and innovation. Focusing on the money, the direct pay people get, is getting us nowhere.

Second side note: there are two places where these public workers are definitely sucking up unreasonably the public's money, benefits, in particular public sector pension funds, and regular pay for low-skilled workers (as well as employing too many of them, though this is often contracted out to private firms now, fortunately). There's a third in the pay of incompetent or under-competent skilled workers. I would definitely think we should be going after all three of these. If breaking public sector unions is somehow necessary to achieve this, I guess that's the cost. I don't think it should be the primary goal. I see unions as basically a neutral force for good or evil, often exploited to commit real economic atrocities against the public interest and to a lesser extent against the real interests of their members, but sometimes exploited to commit real goods for their members as well.

What really needs to be taking place is that there need to be more smaller unions which can more competitively remonstrate for their membership's demands, and the economic and distorting power of large urban school districts does seem to be at issue here.
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