The Heartland Institute put out a Policy Brief, How Teachers in Texas Would Benefit from Expanding School Choice by Joseph L. Bast, Herbert J. Walberg, and Bruno Behrend, May 26, 2011.  Although this paper is written for Texas the arguments put forth are just as valid for Tennessee’s teachers.  It is only 23 pages and very easy to read.  It is available to read in full Here. Below we have pasted a few highlights, but it is definitely worth reading in full.

There are strong theoretical arguments and considerable empirical evidence that professional educators would benefit personally from expanding school choice. Assuming it is done in ways that recognize the legitimate interests and concerns of teachers, greater parental choice in education increases demand for good teachers, which in turn leads to higher compensation. More funds get spent in classrooms rather than on management and overhead. Opportunities are created to allow teachers to specialize and to become education entrepreneurs or change careers.  More generally, better relations with parents are likely to come from parents choosing schools, since the act of choosing gives parents a bigger emotional and often financial commitment to the schools their children attend. Students are more likely to be enrolled in schools that can meet their specific needs and interests, rather than in large and impersonal one-size-fits-all institutions.

1. How School Choice Benefits Public School Teachers

Proposals to increase parental choice with school vouchers or tax credits would create a more competitive education industry, increasing the number of independent employers and teachers.  Schools would have to compete for the best teachers to attract students, and private schools would have the funding to be much more competitive in teacher labor markets than they are today. The result would be a cascade of effects on teachers now working for public schools. Four of the biggest effects on teachers would be higher and more performance-based compensation, better working conditions, more funds spent in the classroom rather than on bureaucracy, and better matching of teachers with students and parents.

2. Why Teachers Need School Choice

Not only would teachers benefit from school choice, but they need it to solve the problems facing their profession.

The comparisons of public and private school teachers’ attitudes, presented earlier, showed compelling empirical evidence that teacher dissatisfaction and burnout are mostly public school phenomena.

Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky, authors of numerous studies on teacher pay and working conditions, found that private schools had no difficulty filling openings despite paying lower wages.  Salary differentials for similar teachers are a good measure of a large number of teachers’ willingness to sacrifice income for better working conditions. A teacher working at a charter school told Hugh Pearson, “I’d rather teach here than in the public schools because I have a lot more latitude in what I teach, and how I teach it.”

A long-time Milwaukee teacher wrote in 1994, “Very common are teachers who at one time were good, but after years of bureaucratic nonsense and dwindling morale, do not much like their job anymore.”

All of these professional opinions, survey data, and anecdotes point to the fact that the current system of recruiting, paying, and managing teachers is deeply flawed. It is frustrating countless good teachers, forcing principals to tolerate poor performance by mediocre teachers, and damaging millions of children. Expanding school choice wouldn’t only benefit teachers, it would rescue them from a system that makes success in the classroom almost impossible.

3. Why Teachers Are Trapped

Some advocates for teachers say the current system can be changed, that teachers have influence and power to make improvements, and that school choice isn’t necessary to rescue them from an admittedly bad situation. Such advocates may be sincere, but they are wrong.

Today’s public school teachers, satisfied or not, are trapped in a bureaucracy-based system with layers of dysfunctional and cross-purposed mandates that make the system beyond the reach of reform. Attempts at change are eventually absorbed by the entrenched interests and processes of the existing system. School choice is their only way out.

The present public education system fails to provide teachers with the tools and freedom they need to do their jobs well. They lack opportunities to specialize in what they do best and move easily into different careers. Teaching credentials have little value outside teaching, so teachers forfeit much of their investment in their professional skills if they leave teaching.

School choice would allow teachers and principals to choose or not choose each other, to work together as a team or admit it can’t be done and go their separate ways. This choice, which would be robust and mutually rewarding in a competitive education system, is impossible in current public school systems. Teachers have nowhere else to go, and principals have no choices either. Both are trapped.

What about compensation?  Ambitious, fairness-conscious teachers resent that they earn no more than the least competent and laziest member of the faculty.

“Ever since A Nation at Risk appeared in the early 1980s, schools have responded by evolving … into institutions that prescribe top down management control of every aspect of the teaching process,” read an unsigned letter to the editor of Teacher Magazine in 1995.

All this means teachers are not able to rescue themselves or their profession from what the public school monopoly is doing to them. The inability of parents to choose, and the resulting inability of school administrators to exercise real management authority or teachers to act as true professionals, creates the bars of a cage that traps all three groups. This situation is widely and correctly blamed for much of the teacher burnout phenomenon.

4. Teachers and Principals Who Rebel

This section may be a slight (but brief) detour or digression, but we want to acknowledge those teachers and principals who have succeeded in breaking out of the cage of the education status quo. They are genuine heroes who are overcoming enormous odds and deserve our thanks.  David Kearns and Denis Doyle found, “superb teachers share a trait not widely talked about:  they are canny outlaws, system beaters, and creative and responsible rule benders. They have to be because to succeed in most districts – especially the large ones – the deck is stacked against the creative, imaginative, and entrepreneurial teacher.”

5. Teacher Support for School Choice

Teacher union opposition to school choice expansion is probably inevitable, but teacher opposition is not.

Public school teachers are not the “suppliers of a monopoly product.”  They just work for a system with a monopoly on public funding, and thus are largely insulated from competitive pressures. Monopolies don’t appreciate competition, but their employees would probably appreciate more competitive labor markets, as well as an inflow of private funds to supplement public funding of K-12 education.

As we’ve documented in this report, lower salaries for public school teachers are not the most likely outcome of expanding school choice. Teachers in fact stand to earn more – perhaps $12,000 a year or more in a city such as Houston – if more schools were made to compete for their services. School choice would mean additional demand for good school teachers, which would lead to increased salaries for most deserving teachers. Furthermore, this would not require additional tax dollars, as it merely requires the re-allocation of resources from administration.

The current distorted image of school choice expansion as a vehicle for lowering teacher pay helps union leaders rally teacher opposition. But a version of parental choice that greatly increases competition by reducing the funding disadvantages of private schools would not spread the lower pay of existing private schools. It would improve the salaries and the already superior working conditions of private schools.

6. Conclusion

This report has presented four ways teachers would personally benefit from school choice: higher and more performance-based pay, better working conditions, more funding reaching the classroom, and the opportunity to teach students who are more likely to share interests, talents, and preparation.

We have made the case that teachers need school choice in order to solve the problems facing their profession. Those problems are daunting. Here again is the litany presented by Linda Darling-Hammond and Gary Sykes, and it is by no means complete: “disparities in pay and working conditions, interstate barriers to teachers’ mobility, inadequate recruitment incentives, bureaucratic hiring systems that discourage qualified applicants, transfer policies that can slow hiring and allocate staff inequitably, and financial incentives to hire cheaper, less qualified teachers.”

Teachers cannot escape the trap created by the public school monopoly without something similar to universal school choice. They cannot leave without experiencing significant personal losses, yet superiors can make staying in those schools miserable. The system often pits teacher against principal, teacher against teacher, and teacher against parent, conflicts that prevent the three groups from coming together to fix the problems. Only school choice reaches the roots of the problem by solving these conflicts.

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