It’s Time To Empower Teachers with Choice

Published April 1, 2005

Compared to professionals in other fields, public school teachers are surprisingly unfree. In order to teach in most states they must take courses at teacher colleges that are widely condemned as being useless or even counterproductive in the classroom. They must join teacher unions and have hefty dues withheld from their paychecks for use in political campaigns without their consent. Merit pay to reward and retain outstanding teachers is off-limits in nearly all government school systems.

Public school teachers lost the rights that other professionals take for granted because the usual marketplace forces that protect and reward professionals do not operate inside the public school system. Teachers, for example, are protected against competition and individual responsibility, and the absence of competition allows many superintendents and school boards to change frequently academic assessment methods and tests, making it difficult for critics to prove the absence of year-to-year progress.

With multiple and constantly changing curricula, however, there can be no certainty as to what students should have mastered in earlier grades, making it almost impossible for school boards, superintendents, and principals to assess accurately the performance of individual teachers.

With objective measures of professional competence missing, teachers rightly fear favoritism and other kinds of managerial abuse. The solution, offered by powerful teacher unions, is complex and detailed collective bargaining agreements which 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 nearly impossible to shut down. But this “solution” has badly damaged the teaching profession and children.

Teaching has become a disrespected profession, with the overwhelming majority of teachers recruited from the bottom third of American college graduates. Real teacher pay has risen by 12 percent since 1982, but pay rose faster for college graduates as a group and in comparable professions, for example, 17 percent for nursing.

Many public school principals have been forced to work around, rather than replace, incompetent staff. This places greater demands on competent teachers and sometimes puts students at grave risk. Some 15 percent of students are sexually abused by a teacher or staff member during their elementary and secondary school years. A recent study of 225 such cases found only 1 percent of the cases resulted in an attempt to revoke the abuser’s teaching license. Often, the sexual predators were simply assigned to a different school.

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 relative to other professions.

If parents were allowed to choose schools for their children and if public funds followed the child, the tactics used by superintendents and school boards to avoid accountability would no longer be necessary or possible. Superintendents would have no incentive to mislead parents or voters. Accurate information about student achievement and professional competence from third-party rating systems would become widely available, as in the cases of consumer reports on automobiles and hospitals and other goods and services.

If school choice were allowed, school districts and individual schools would become smaller, allowing for a variety of curricula to be applied consistently based on the needs of students and preferences of their 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.

Successful schools would pay more for teachers with proven ability because they would have greater resources, from privately or publicly financed tuition, from which to pay teachers. Excessive bureaucracy would not be tolerated, and more money would flow to teachers and classrooms. Principals would no longer be prevented from offering higher pay to exceptional teachers or those teaching difficult-to-master topics.

Finally, under a system of school choice, teachers would be free to start their own schools and compete for students, free of the bureaucracy and regulations that presently handicap them. A wide range of exciting opportunities would emerge as old assumptions and dogmas, kept alive for more than a century behind the walls of monopoly and bureaucracy, are finally subjected to criticism and fall before new and better ideas.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor, with Herbert J. Walberg, of Education & Capitalism (Hoover Press 2003).