No competition

Why it harms underpaid teachers and underserved kids

Issue: "Paying the price," Feb. 9, 2002

America's teachers are underpaid. If there's one big social cause that's dumb to argue over, it may be that one. At every level from preschool to graduate school, faculty salaries regularly lag at the bottom of the nation's wage scales. It's true in public schools and private schools. We claim that we have no more precious national commodity than our children's minds-but we tend not to back that up with actual dollars.

So does it surprise you to learn that teachers themselves regularly stand in the way of letting society do something significant about teacher pay? I'm sure it would surprise those teachers.

But how else can you view the adamant opposition of the National Education Association to any reform that might level the playing field in the funding of American education? The NEA, of course, is for all practical purposes synonymous with the public-school system in our country. As such, it is a monopoly.

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Monopolies have a track record of treating labor badly. And why not? Where else can the workers with any particular skill set go? If McDonald's is the only place up and down the strip that employs burger flippers, it can pretty much pay them what it wants. But if there's a Burger King across the street, the manager of the McDonald's will negotiate a wage for his own burger flippers while naturally keeping in mind what the manager at Burger King pays.

Public schools, for the most part, have no competition across the street. Government schools enroll something just over 90 percent of the pre-K through graduate school student population. That's what you call market share!

But it's market share those schools never had to earn. For years, taxpayer support has allowed them to give away their services while competitors had to charge for theirs. Such an atmosphere does little to instill a sense of reality among its people.

Indeed, that's why the public schools and the NEA are so infected with an aura of otherworldliness. When you have a 90 percent market share, you tend not to worry much-especially when most of your colleagues in the 10 percent segment receive wages even lower than those in your own public sector.

But the fact is that all of us need competition. Whether that's the way God constructed us in the first place or perhaps because of our fall into sin, we do better when we're pushed by somebody else's performance. The writer of Hebrews refers to it as "provoking each other to good works."

But so long as the NEA and the public-school establishment keep insisting that the educational game should be so radically tilted in their direction, very little competition takes place. And without competition, both the consumers of the public-school teachers' service and the providers themselves are regularly shortchanged. The consumers are shortchanged because 90 percent of them have no basis for comparing the educational product with what otherwise might be available "out there." The providers are shortchanged because without comparison shopping, no one bothers to offer a genuinely competitive raise.

To be sure, a tiny amount of competition may go on between school districts and across state lines. A few teachers scurry back and forth between government and private schools. But all that counts for about as much significance as a gumball machine in the lobby of Microsoft Inc.

What will really make a difference? When significant groups of teachers, serving significant groups of educational consumers, begin producing significantly superior results-and when the big economic resource that has driven 90 percent of the whole enterprise is realigned to reward that performance. To the extent good teachers are at the core of that realignment, they will find themselves rewarded for their innovation and productivity.

To the extent, though, that they continue standing only on their degree credentials, their association memberships, and their incestuous accrediting structures, there's precious little motivation for educational consumers anywhere to up the ante for their services. One of the beauties of the free market is the manner in which it drives customers-and their money-to those who are really producing the goods.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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