For the first time in years, teachers’ unions are winning popular support. West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado have held strikes resulting in higher compensation, and the rest of the states’ unions have vowed to follow.
The unions claim public school teachers are underpaid. This is often true relative to richer states but even these early states averaged $49,000, not quite poverty, and top pay could double that. What is kept a state secret is that teacher benefits are actually much higher. While most Americans do not have much retirement beyond Social Security, annual teacher retirement spending is $20,000 per teacher nationwide, compensating more than times higher ($1.92 versus $7.38 per hour) in retirement compensation than other workers.
Unions say education spending has been cut, harming students. Yet, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending actually grew by 27 percent in these early poorer states, in Kentucky and West Virginia by 35 percent and in Oklahoma 26 percent, with only Arizona cut modestly and Colorado flat.
Something certainly is harming students. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 assessment reported that 65 percent of American eighth graders were not proficient in reading and 67 percent were not proficient in mathematics. Nearby Baltimore reported only 11 percent proficient in math and merely 13 percent in reading.
Was it poor pay? Baltimore teachers had an average salary of $67,000 with 32 percent earning over $80,000 in a city with an average household income of $44,000.
What could cause such abysmal results? A 2014 California court decision supported even by The New York Times found that the education unions’ bureaucratic rules for hiring, firing, and job security violated the state constitution for disproportionately saddling poor and minority children with ineffective teachers.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether 22 states can require public employees to pay union “agency” or “fair share” fees used to advocate against their own political views.
The pro-civil service National Academy of Public Administration recently issued a report specifying what they claimed were the three most important steps needed to improve government performance: better methods to find and solve “management challenges;” more “evidence-driven” administration; and “acknowledging and rewarding” employee success.
The “starting point” to remedy these was the Employee Viewpoint Survey and “other internal measures of organizational health along with indicators that show how improved unit health or capacity correlates with better unit performance.” The means was “technology to access real-time data and using machine-learning to help on routine tasks.” That could then “allow managers and staff to spend higher-order time on issues that cannot be addressed via technologies.”
In response to a Government Executive magazine summary of the proposal, a government employee asked: “If we want to improve how government works, why are we putting it on the employees and not the management who's running the place?" To which another replied, “I think you missed the whole point of the article,” which was in fact the “organizational health” of employees — not work improvements.
Protected from failure from a competitive market, whether it is teachers or other government employees, public sector organization and unionization emphasize the health and welfare of employees over customer citizens. Likewise, producing solid-appearing metrics through data and technology translates into surveys of managers’ and especially employees’ feelings like EVS. As Jerry Z. Muller makes clear in his "The Tyranny of Metrics," these numbers “backfire.”
The “key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators.” But “mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.”
All organizations “in thrall to metrics” provoke employees with greater initiative into leaving, thus depriving them of their best employees. It is worse in the public sector since government does not have an outcome-related method like profit-and-loss to measure success. It is solely reliant upon employee performance appraisals translated into seemingly-neutral metrics, often further diluted through union bargaining and onerous appeals processes discouraging candid managerial evaluation.
Perhaps, as Professor Muller suggests, “there is a healthy element” in forcing innovative personnel into less bureaucratic private and charter schools and private business “but surely the large-scale organizations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate.”
Reacting to this reality, the Trump Administration has just issued Executive Orders to begin making its unionized workforce more responsible by somewhat easing the process for removal of poor performers, forbidding union lobbying on government time, limiting the duration for bargaining over contracts, and restricting employee time spent on union business.
It is a start.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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