It Just Wouldn’t be Fair

Is the new collective bargaining law fair to public employees? Was the old law fair to the rest of us?

One rough-and-ready concept of fairness says that once you have something, it shouldn’t be taken away. In this view, the new law is unfair simply because it is less favorable to public employees than the old one. It’s human nature to think that way, but it’s also dangerous: Even if a policy was a terrible mistake, fixing it would be unfair to someone.

You could look at money. During theĀ  2017-2018 school year, for example, the average regular salary for full-time teachers was $55,050.* You’d need to decide what to compare that to, and you’d need to adjust for the fact that that’s a school-year salary, not a twelve-month salary. And, since salary’s not all that matters, you’d need to take into account the fact that teachers have unusually good pensions and job security. The answer wouldn’t be that clear-cut.

There’s something else we can look at, however. Unionized public employees, when they negotiate, have two important advantages compared to most private sector employees.

First, they have unions. In the private sector (nationally), fewer than 10% of employees are represented by unions.

Second, at the local level, they’re negotiating with school board members, mayors, city council members – elected officials. Officials they can support or oppose with votes and campaign contributions. To a degree, in the words of an old saying, public employees “elect the people they negotiate with.”

In other words, almost none of us (the general public, that is) have those advantages, but the people who work for us do. Does that seem fair?

Just One More Thing

There are two parts of the law I would not have supported: the provisions on recertification of unions, and the rule that salary increases awarded in arbitration cannot exceed 2%. I’m a moderate, after all.

* Yes, the state reports a lot of different averages for different categories of teacher. This is the regular salary (not including payments for extra assignments) for full-time teachers who are not teacher leaders.


Accountability Part II: Job Protection

In Iowa, firing a non-probationary public school teacherĀ  requires “just cause” – basically, a reason that will hold up in court.

Is that a good thing? You’d probably like to have that kind of protection yourself, but you probably wouldn’t want to go to a hospital, say, where everyone had that kind of protection. And you should be dubious about sending your children to a school where the teachers have it.

First, “He’s not very good, he doesn’t work very hard, and hiring him was a terrible mistake,” won’t hold up in court.

Second, even if the superintendent and school board have a stronger reason, that probably would hold up in court, they may not act. Going to court is expensive and time-consuming, and is never a sure thing. The judge wasn’t there, after all.

Finally, if you work in the private sector, and aren’t represented by a union, you don’t have anything like this much protection (Only about 7% of private-sector workers are represented by unions).

So we – the public – rarely have that kind of protection, but people who work for us, and can have a huge impact on our families, do.

I’m not suggesting that teachers should have no protection at all, by the way. If they were protected until the end of the school year, but not indefinitely, that would be reasonable.

But one way or another, poor performance should have consequences (for principals, superintendents, school boards, and everyone involved, by the way, not just for teachers).




Imagine that a restaurant that you frequented went downhill. What would you do?

My guess is that you’d stop going there. And if enough people did that, the place would fold.

That’s accountability. Or, to put it another way, that’s a powerful incentive for the owner to maintain the quality of the restaurant.

Now, imagine that the public school your children attended went downhill. Sending them somewhere else would be inconvenient at best, probably expensive, and perhaps impossible.

And if you did send them somewhere else, the school district would keep on collecting the same taxes it was collecting before (and, probably, at least as much state aid per pupil).

That’s not a powerful incentive for the school board to maintain the quality of the schools.

And there’s the problem we face in trying to get good performance out of public agencies: Poor performance doesn’t have enough consequences.


What About the Schools?

We could use better schools. There are things standing in the way, however, two of which are particularly important.

(1) Public schools, like most public agencies, are to some extent not accountable: they get their tax money even if the customers aren’t happy with them.

(2) Public school teachers have a lot of political influence, and what’s best for the teachers is usually not what’s best for the students and taxpayers.

Last year’s legislation on collective bargaining for public employees is a step in the right direction (Mostly-it’s not perfect, but more about that later), but there’s a lot left to be done.

More in a couple of days.