Paying Teachers: David Eggers and Unions

Please allow me to wax political here for a moment. If you don’t want to read my political ranting don’t click below.

What has roused me from my political slumber? An article by David Eggers – a staggering genius with some velocityon low teacher pay. Mr. Eggers bemoans the low pay of teachers and the fact that they often have to work two jobs to make a living.

You know what I find fascinating? The fact that Eggers can write an article on teacher’s salaries without mentioning the highly relevant fact, IMHO, that public school teachers belong to unions. Hmm, I wonder if perhaps the particular legal organization of this profession might have something to do with how much they get paid! But not so much as a hint about it in this little rant. Do you suppose that Mother Jones is a big fan of unions?

The elephant in the room during any discussion of teacher pay is the bald fact that unions are a hindrance to better pay. Why? Because a closed system of labor where the best and the worst teachers essentially get paid the same is never going to allow for high pay. Unions might be able to blackmail successful companies into over paying them but school systems can’t because there is no profit to be made in tax payer funded education. If a company has a high profit they can afford to give in to union demands in order to avoid a costly strike. In the public sector where funds come from taxes this means political backlash. The only people who do well in this system are the mediocre teachers and the administrators.

Let’s face it, it is very easy to get an education degree these days. If you are willing to sit through hours of multicultural mumbo-jumbo and psychobable you can breeze through a degree and get a job. Pleas don’t tell me that it takes a great deal of study to earn a degree in secondary education. I went to college with these folks you know. Here in Columbus you can start at around $30,000 for nine months a year. There are very few majors that require so little and reward you with a union job at a decent salary. The problem is that if you are a dedicated and skilled teacher who cares about your subject there is really no way to make a significant change in your salary. Far too many take the masters degree in education administration and go to work for the district where the money is better.

Unions hurt the talented at the expense of the mediocre. Other professions that pay well require specific skills, higher levels of intelligence and more risk. Doctors have high student debt and high stress jobs not too mention a challenging curriculum to say the least. Computer techies usually need numerical or scientific aptitude or at least the temperament to code. They also can get dumped real easy if the economy changes. Teachers face none of these challenges and are practically guaranteed a job due to collective bargaining and teacher shortages.

The sad thing is that the unions and the education colleges refuse to change and are in fact continuing to push against any and all reforms. Here in Ohio their response to teacher shortages was to make teaching degrees a five year program. Yeah, if you have a shortage of something make it harder to get!

What is also laughable is the fact that a college professor can’t walk into a high school classroom and teach. I taught at a community college after I got my masters. I could teach students there no matter what their age (some were high schoolers getting advanced credit) but I couldn’t teach at the local high school. Tell me why this makes sense.

Supply and demand allow people to properly evaluate worth, if you mess with it you skew the price. The combination of public funding with inflexible unions means low pay. Eggers can complain all he wants about how society doesn’t value teachers but the fact is that unions value security and power more than they do excellence.

End of rant.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I have a friend who works as a database admin for the for the clerical union. It is a union of secretaries and mid-level IT folks. The union’s main clients are other unions… the circle of life is complete.

    I agree with Eggers (did I just say that?) The teaching profession should one of the most sought after positions in the marketplace with intense competition. What is more important? Can this be accomplished with the current setup? Probably not. Change is needed. Pay your childrens educators and the best will rise to the occasion.

  2. I haven’t read the egger’s article, but I’d like to make a little point about teacher’s unions (and while this is lengthy, I should add that I’m not trolling, I love your blog and read it regularly, however, my mother was an educator and I have a bit of experience with similar situation).

    While I do understand Union’s influences on the market, you need to realize that position of teacher is a position that is be filled by the state and the state, generally, tries to fill it as cheaply as one possibly can.

    One of the reasons teachers unions do exist, though, is to guarantee that established teachers who have taught for many years don’t get dropped. The fact is, in states, like Texas, where either the union, or the infrastructure established by law, guarantees that teachers do, in-fact, get raises as they continue to work in the field, districts have tended to lay off teachers that cost more and put in more inexpensive, inexperienced teachers.

    That happened in my hometown a few years ago. The union stepped in to try to re-instate “expensive” teachers and keep old, experienced, comparatively-expensive from receiving the proverbial boot.

    In states where all teachers are equally valuable, then your statement may be right, but when the infrastructure allows teachers a certain amount of advancement, unions are necessary to guarantee that these teachers don’t get “downsized” in cost-cutting measures.

    A lot of teacher’s unions are deplorable, many cut deals with the districts to prevent them from advancing, but in a state like Texas, where there is no private school, other than a few, scattered catholic or Jesuit institutions, the school districts hold a very literal monopoly.

    While advocates of a free market economy (of which I am one), generally, believe that the free market will create the most jobs and best wages, a market controlled by a monopoly, especially one that is a state-controlled monopoly (not a monopoly created by the market, itself) the worth of jobs cannot increase with the outside intervention of union (or some other, for example, federal powers).

    Moreover, since some states, culturally, prefer public or private education, the superiority of a particular private or public school, generally, won’t sway a great number of people (because I’ve known Texans who will drive their children further to worse public schools to avoid taking them to privates).

    In that case, there, really, does need to be a teacher’s union present to keep things-in-line (it saved the jobs of a lot of my mother’s friends).

    P.S. If you still want to discuss this, or are unconvinced feel free to e-mail me.

  3. Dirk,
    I understand where you are coming from but you have to realize that when you depend on collective bargaining to protect jobs you skew the market and dampen salaries. Nationally there is a teacher shortage. If we allowed teachers to compete for jobs based on education, skill, seniority, etc. the best ones would find jobs and compete for higher pay. Instead we have a system that rewards mediocrity and discourages those with higher dedication and talent. Unions are set up to protect every teacher no matter how good or bad. By its very nature it limits the market.

    Put it this way: the price system is a way of allocating worth on the margins. You will pay based on how much you value something. The union system forces you to pay all or nothing, there is no margin. They defend all teachers period. This means that a community doesn’t have the flexibility to pay great teachers more than average teachers. The only differential is seniority and maybe board certification. Merit based pay has been fought tooth and nail.

    You can’t have both job security and a highly competitive pay structure because the system can’t – or won’t – bear the inefficiences.

  4. Kevin,

    I promise this is the last thing I’ll say on the issue. First, I will concede several points and say that merit-based pay would, definately, do a lot to improve the quality of teachers, overall. Moreover, I agree with you that job security has to be sacrificed in favor of better pay.

    However, the problem is, to fill positions with the best teachers would require radical changes to public education, since, as-long-as the state has a monopoly over education, school districts are going to look at the “bottom line” and cut out the jobs of expensive teachers in favor of cheaper ones.

    In my above example, Texas school districts tried to kick out “expensive” teachers merely because of their seniority (which is ridiculous, considering that Kentucky Fried Chicken gives pay raises to employees who stay on with the company). Add any more expenses and they’ll be even more inclined to try to oust teachers. I think you can agree with me here that if the school districts are allowed to make hire-fire without regulation, merit-based pay will hurt more good teachers than it will help.

    Maybe unions aren’t the answer, I’ll concede that point, too, but a lot of the alternatives are tricky. Abolishing public schools (and, possibly, replacing them with a system of early eduction grants) would maximize competition for teachers, but it sounds a bit radical (I wouldn’t support it), and it would be unpopular, since, as I pointed out, a lot of cities and states don’t like private schools, anyway. The state should also write in provisos to the laws that guarantee that high-merit teachers can’t get fired (or, at-least, can’t get fired without scrutiny) or hire and fire teachers at the state level (since it’s pretty obvious that we can’t trust the school districts to make the right decisions), which would be costly and would be fought, at every turn, by school districts.

    I agree with you that unions, to some degree (hell, probably to a great degree), do marginalize conditions for good teachers. However, I maintain that while unions may not be the best sollution, free markets work very well when there is (real) competition (and a, perfectly, free) to be had, but they can’t be supported in a (less-than-free) market that is controlled by a state monopoly (and the public’s desire for this monopoly). Therefore, if we want higher teacher pay and more competition, changes in the monopoly, itself, or public opinion, will have to take place.

    I guess what I’m saying is, while teacher pay is marginalized, and the lack-of-competition is bad, the state’s monopoly over eduction and the public’s taste in education are factors that are just-as-important (and, probably, more important) than the union’s role in a teacher’s ability to be paid. Therefore the problem needs a more complex solution than stating a simple economic theorum.

    Thanks for putting up with my muckraking,
    Dirk A. Keaton

  5. If teachers are put on a merit based system then you have to factor in administration influences. Poor administration can cause your kids to perform at lower levels. If a child causes problems because of poor behavior, and you send him to the office. They do nothing but send him back to you and say that you need to take care of it. The student continues to be a problem. If you spend all of your time dealing with the poor behavior of 1 student the rest of the class suffers. But it happens everyday. And what about the kids that come to your class that are 3 grades below where they are supposed to be. All of this is all well and good in a discussion, but you cannot tell me my livelyhood should be based on all of the factors that we are put under. You can be the best teacher in the world but the people around you can make your job impossible. I should get paid less because I have kids put in my class that are 3 grades under where they should be because some law says I have to keep them in a least restrictive environment. Have you ever tried to teach 30 kids when they put an autistic kid in your class that you have to hold down twice a week and give constant attention to and then keep the other kids where they should be. These are the things we have to deal with. And I would gladly work 12 months a year as opposed to getting a minimum wage job for 3 months. I do not belong to a union.

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