Compared to professionals in other fields, public school teachers are surprisingly unfree. In order to teach in most states they must take courses at teachers colleges that are often condemned as being useless or even counterproductive in the classroom. They must join teacher unions and have hefty dues withheld from their paychecks, largely for use in political campaigns without their consent. Merit pay is off-limits in nearly all public school systems (Hess 2004).
The lack of competition among schools within districts takes negotiating power away from teachers and puts it in the hands of public school administrators. Districts can hire teachers for less, give them less choice of subjects to teach, workloads, and working conditions, and not worry that good teachers would seek work at schools that offer better terms. Teachers are especially vulnerable to this kind of treatment because they often are their household’s second wage-earners, so they are not free to move to another city or state, and because their skills do not qualify them for better-paying employment in other fields (Merrifield 1999).
Public school teachers lost the rights that other professionals take for granted because the market forces that protect and reward professionals do not operate inside the public school system. The logic of bureaucracy rewards centralization of authority, resulting in school districts and high schools that are too large for a single curriculum to be best for most students. With multiple and constantly changing curricula, however, there can be no certainty as to what students should have mastered in earlier grades, making it difficult for school boards, superintendents, and principals to accurately assess the performance of individual teachers (Sykes 1995; Evers and Walberg 2003).
With objective measures of professional competence missing, teachers rightly fear favoritism and other kinds of managerial abuse. Powerful teacher unions offer protection in the form of insurance and detailed collective bargaining agreements that severely limit the principals’ managerial prerogatives. In some respects this strategy works: Teachers are almost never terminated for incompetency, and even the most troubled schools are seldom shut down. But this state of affairs has badly damaged the teaching profession and children.
Teaching has become a widely disrespected profession. “[N]ew students [entering teacher colleges]] are drawn disproportionately from the bottom third of American college students,” as measured by their score on high school achievement tests (Hoxby 2003b, 93). Average real teacher pay rose 12 percent between 1982 and 2002, but pay rose faster for college graduates as a group and in comparable professions; for example, 17 percent for nursing (Finn 2003).
School Choice Offers a Better Route for Teachers
There is a better path for teachers to follow. School choice would allow public school teachers to recover their lost freedoms while boosting the productivity of K-12 schools.
Private schools offer a glimpse of how school choice benefits teachers. The 2007–2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a national survey of teachers and principals conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, found public school teachers are twice as likely as private school teachers to say the stress and disappointments they experience at their schools are so great that teaching there isn’t really worth it, and they are more than twice as likely to say they plan to leave teaching as soon as they are eligible for retirement (SASS 2008).
If parents were allowed to choose schools for their children and if public funds followed the child, the tactics used by superintendents, school boards, and teacher unions to avoid accountability would no longer be necessary or possible. Superintendents would have no incentive to mislead parents or voters. Accurate consumer reports containing school-level information about student achievement and professional competence would become widely available, similar to those now available on automobiles, hospitals, and other goods and services.
School choice would allow a variety of curricula to be applied consistently based on the needs of students and preferences of parents. This would make possible more accurate evaluation of each teacher’s contribution to a student’s learning. Schools that retain incompetent or dangerous employees would quickly lose students to those with merit-based employment policies.
Most teachers, in short, would benefit from a more open and competitive education industry. The teaching profession has as much to gain from increased choice and competition as students do. That is probably why the Association of American Educators, the nation’s largest non-union teacher organization, supports school choice (Beckner 2011).
Successful schools would pay more for teachers with proven ability since by doing so they could attract more students and consequently have greater resources, from privately or publicly financed tuition, from which to pay teachers. Excessive bureaucracy would not be tolerated, and more of the tax dollars raised for education would reach teachers and classrooms. Principals would no longer be prevented from offering higher pay to exceptional teachers or those teaching difficult topics such as calculus and physics.
Under a system of school choice, teachers would be free to start their own schools free of bureaucracy and regulations (Zuelke 1996).
While innovation has flourished in other fields, the practice of teaching hasn’t seen nearly as many changes. Colleges, for-profit tutoring services, and businesses providing online courses seem to be reaping the benefits of the Internet and other technological advances, leaving teachers behind. Expanding school choice would allow more teachers to take advantage of these new trends (Walberg 2010).
A wide range of opportunities would emerge as old assumptions and dogmas, kept