Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mike Petrelli's Crisis of Faith


I’ve been mulling about it ever since, wondering if she’s right that we reformers have exaggerated the unions’ negative role. To help me think through this question, I reached out to some friends, including Bryan Hassel, Jay Greene, Andy Rotherham, Greg Forster, Marty West, and Jamie Gass, who each provided thoughtful responses. And I’ve concluded that no, Diane isn’t right. My sense of equilibrium is returning. Here’s why.

I'll just address this point:

Second, when it comes to union influence on the ground, at the district level, it’s not at all clear that the “strong states” versus “weak states” distinction makes any sense. As the National Council on Teacher Quality has shown, teachers associations in “right to work” states regularly get provisions into state law that their “strong union” peers get through local collective bargaining. It’s true that principals are handcuffed in Massachusetts when it comes to issues like “last hired, first fired,” tenure protections, and (the absence of) differential pay. But principals in virtually all “weak union” states are similarly handcuffed, because teachers have succeeded in getting laws passed that have the same effect. As Jay Greene told me, the unions’ goal “is to ensure as little policy variation across states as they can on their core issues.” Or as Greg Forster says poetically:

The dysfunctional policies of the unions have been so deeply ingrained in the education system that even where unions are nominally “weak” you still find flat salary schedules, unbreakable tenure, etc.—the whole union agenda. So when we compare “strong union” states with “weak union” states, it’s not really a fair comparison.

As Petrelli says, one explanation of why these practices are relatively uniform across the country is the influence of unions in areas in which unions aren't influential. Of course, by this reasoning, the once powerful United Auto Workers would have been able to get states in the South to pass more laws influencing the wages and working conditions in non-union automotive plants, or for that matter just gotten different labor laws passed. Not to mention universal health care.

Or another more straightforward explanation is that there has been a broad consensus that some regulation over hiring, firing and payment of public employees is necessary to restrain corruption, nepotism and political interference in the educational process. Just imagine what urban school systems would be like if they had been run for the past 100 years with no unions and no restraint on hiring, firing and pay scales. Let's put it this way, it would have opened up a whole set of interesting plot lines for The Sopranos. "How will Principal "Walnuts" Gualtieri control A.J.'s defiant behavior without incurring Tony's wrath?" Etc.

Maybe we're beyond all that now, because our local governments are clean, because we do data-driven decision making, and most of all, because we've all agreed that it is ok for a principal or someone running a non-profit that manages a handful of small schools to give themselves (or appoint a board to give them) a salary of $250,000 or more. Regardless, it doesn't change the history.

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