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Teachers Unions: Merit Pay is "Crazy" By: Stan Greer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 22, 2005

In the age of the internet, it just takes a few minutes to confirm that pay-for-performance is the standard declared policy for compensating educators at colleges and universities across America. A typical example is this statement, posted on the website of a liberal-arts institution located in upstate New York, regarding staff members’ salaries and benefits:

The university’s pay program recognizes each staff member’s value and contributions by tying increases in compensation to job performance, and particularly by rewarding individuals who meet high performance standards, and differentiating between superior performers and others.

Needless to say, assessing the performance of faculty members is not an exact science. Some faculty members teach a disproportionate number of students who need remedial work, while others tend to get the cream of the crop in their classes. Some excellent instructors are mediocre researchers, and vice-versa. Yet somehow, universities make overall assessments and reward faculty accordingly, because the various players in higher education understand that the alternative of rewarding faculty solely on the basis of seniority and/or paper credentials is far worse.


The fact that merit pay is putatively the norm in higher education is somehow overlooked in most media reports concerning current efforts to implement merit pay in K-12 education. How can it be that most private and public colleges and universities, bastions of socialist ideology that they are, are positively Randian in their compensation philosophy by comparison with public schools? The primary reason is the extensive monopoly power to speak for K-12 teachers wielded by union officials. Were it not for this factor, the practical difficulties of rewarding public school teachers according to their performance wouldn’t be greatly different from the routinely overcome difficulties of pay-for-performance in higher education.


K-12 teacher unions are both pervasive and radical. Under state policies that either explicitly authorize or tacitly sanction union monopolies, roughly two-thirds of K-12 public school teachers nationwide, including union members and non-members alike, are forced to accept an “exclusive” union agent as their sole spokesman in contract negotiations. Effectively, that means teacher union officials dictate what the compensation policy is.


And for decades, teacher union officials have manifested a marked hostility toward outstanding teachers. The example of world-famous math teacher Jaime Escalante, while especially outrageous, is instructive. According to Escalante (the subject of the 1988 Hollywood movie Stand and Deliver), who over the course of many years of hard work developed the most successful inner-city math program in America, teacher union officials chastised him for attracting “too many” students to his calculus classes. When Escalante finally resigned from the high school he and his students had made famous, local teacher union officials circulated a celebratory note that read: “We got him out!”


Delegates to the summer 2000 convention of the National Education Association (NEA), which now has 2.7 million members, made their union’s contempt for “uppity” teachers explicit policy. They declared their categorical opposition to “any…system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance.” Up to now, the bosses of the NEA union and the likeminded men and women who run the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO) have had their way when it comes to teacher compensation, with only a handful of exceptions.


But now change seems to be in the air. A number of elected officials are saying publicly that teachers should be rewarded when they do a superior job, just like university faculty. For example, Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger (CA) and Don Carcieri (RI) are advocating merit pay for teachers. Another Republican governor, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, is now pushing for the expansion of a pilot merit-pay program in his state.


Merit-pay programs need not impose any additional cost on taxpayers if they empower school boards to reduce or eliminate raises for below-average teachers in order to free up funds to give the best ones the pay they deserve. This happens all the time in the private sector, where differential pay clearly helps spur productivity growth, to the ultimate benefit of all kinds of employees. But to propose that teachers be rewarded based on merit, as Schwarzenegger did in his January 5 State of the State speech, is simply insane, according to teacher union officials.


“It’s a crazy idea,” sneered San Diego Education Association union President Terry Pesta. “That’s la-la land,” chortled United Teachers Los Angeles union President John Perez.


Of course, it’s not just in public education that union officials and union-“friendly” politicians, disregarding the compensation practices that prevail for the vast majority of employers and employees, claim that merit pay is “crazy.” The Bush administration has been met with a similar reaction to its recently proposed changes for the personnel systems in the Homeland Security and Defense Departments. As the Federal Times has noted, one of these changes would enable managers to “steer larger pay raises to high performers.” Of all the proposed changes, this appears to be the one U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) finds most objectionable. To replace automatic pay increases with a “new and untested ‘pay-for-performance’ system,” thunders Hoyer, will foment “turmoil in the rank-and-file.”


Pesta, Perez and Big Labor favorite Hoyer are blowing smoke. Experience with merit pay in K-12 education and federal employment is extremely limited because union officials have opposed it tooth and nail, and worked to sabotage it when they couldn’t stop it. But in the occasional cases where teacher union bosses have been unable to block or undermine merit pay, teachers appear to appreciate being treated as individuals. The same will no doubt prove true for federal employees if the Bush pay-for-performance plan is implemented.


In February, a participant in a pay-for-performance pilot program in La Crescent, MN, talked about it with AP reporter Brian Bakst. “Just rewarding people for having put in a lot of years, that’s one of the things the public gets upset about – and justly so,” said high school English teacher Kris Sandy. It’s “perfectly reasonable” to tie raises to fulfilling performance goals, as long as teachers are given a clear presentation of what they need to do, Sandy continued. Former California public school teacher Arana Shapiro was more blunt in recently explaining to journal editor Naomi Riley why she switched to a private, nonunion school in New York City: “[I]n public schools there are teachers who have been there for ten years but haven’t changed one thing they’ve done…and they’re making a high amount of money. Yet teachers who have been there five years but are constantly improving on their practice are stuck” at a low pay level.


The real obstacle to the successful implementation of merit pay isn’t teachers or federal employees, it is the monopoly-bargaining system imposed on public education and federal employment by politicians acting at the behest of union officials. Discussions about teacher merit pay in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and the 31 other states that have laws authorizing and promoting monopoly bargaining in public schools will be fruitless unless their basic labor-relations policies change. To have a chance of succeeding, merit-pay proposals must abolish monopoly bargaining or, at the very least, sharply restrict its scope.


This is a difficult, but not impossible proposition. Just since December 2003, the governors of three states, Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana, have rescinded executive orders, signed by their Big Labor-friendly predecessors, imposing monopoly bargaining on state government employees. Legislation repealing municipal-employee monopoly bargaining was approved by the Oklahoma state House March 2. And the National Right to Work Committee, which pushed for all of these moves, is now calling for action rolling back public-sector monopoly bargaining in many other state capitals.


While in principle it isn’t the least bit “crazy” to compensate teachers or other employees according to their performance, it is truly crazy to try to do so while union officials retain monopoly power to negotiate the pay and benefits for all employees in a school district, state, or agency. Would-be reformers like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Carcieri, and Tim Pawlenty need to avoid this pitfall as they seek to put their good intentions into action this year.

Stan Greer is newsletter editor for the National Right to Work Committee, a 2.2 million-member, Springfield, Virginia-based citizens’ group that supports each employee’s freedom to join, or not join, a labor union.

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