How Public Unions Hurt Teachers

Our friend Pathteacher has kindly given permission to post his interesting insight on some additional unintended consequences of public education unions:

Unionized Teachers. Professionals trapped in their job like no other.

Many public school teachers belong to unions affiliated with either the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. And its pretty well accepted that teachers represented by unions enjoy decent pay and benefits, maybe not the highest of tax brackets, but comfortable and generally secure, and given the shortened work year with all the holidays off, not a bad career choice for a young person, assuming one can actually land that cherished unionized public school teaching gig..

But there is one trade-off that goes along with the union representation. A near total lack of job portability unseen throughout the range of professional career choices a student might otherwise make. Teachers are essentially trapped in the first school district into which they are hired. Engineers can look around and switch jobs to chase promotions and higher salaries, the same goes for doctors, lawyers, nurses, managers, researchers, marketers, therapists, and every other sort of professional. But not teachers. School districts are like a Roach Motel for teachers. Maybe the Hotel California?

Teacher salaries index up from starting wages to top of the scale depending on years of seniority and level of degree. A first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree might make $30,000. In that same district a teacher might max out with 10 years seniority and a Master’s Degree at $80,000. Not too shabby. Now, if that high seniority teacher with the advanced degree decides to leave and take a job in the school district down the road a mile or two, guess what happens. Their seniority would start back at zero and they would earn entry level pay scale. So, they never leave. Of course they don’t. The object is to get the Masters Degree and the 10th year index and ride it out until retirement in the same district. Unless your job was an absolute living hell, there would be no decent reason to cut your salary in half or less and start over in a new district.

This is the downside of that wonderful union protection. Teachers are degreed professionals with negotiated rules governing their pay and benefits that are essentially the same as they are for the floor sweepers union just with different numbers. Salary based primarily on seniority, not performance or effort or qualifications. To the district, you are a commodity, a warm body. They never share that detail with College students looking to become teachers.

On a side-note, this effect has contributed to the underfunded public employee pension mess. In the past, school districts looking to cut costs have offered early retirement packages to high seniority teachers at the top of the pay scale so they could replace them with new hires at the bottom of the pay scale. Voila! The district saved money! But it was only short term savings that turned into long-term liabilities. Over time, the ranks of relatively young retired teachers recieving pensions swelled higher and higher, while those new hires indexed up to the top of the pay scale themselves. So the districts are eventually back in the crunch and the pension funds are overburdened as well. All in the name of austerity.

And its plausible that some of the general malaise in the classrooms might be traced to teachers who see little or no reason to go the extra mile for the classroom or the students when there’s no possibility all that extra effort might impact their salary or earn them a promotion. If you’re a sweeper, better not sweep too fast or you’ll just cheese off all your co-workers.

This is certainly an aspect of education I hadn’t considered before, so I appreciate Pathteacher raising this point. I do know from my Grandfather that education administrators like principles and superintendents don’t have quite the same problem. Oftentimes, it’s the inflexibility of the unions that prevent the reforms administrators would like to make from occurring. For more on how public unions hurt teachers and students, please see: Public Unions’ Attack on Education.

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