- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2011

There is much more at stake in the showdown between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the public-employee unions than negotiations over pay scales or even the extravagant pension costs that threaten to drive the state into insolvency. The sleeper issue, the one that could have the biggest impact over the long run, is the move to curtail public employees’ collective-bargaining rights. Why? Because that could overturn the ossified practice of rewarding schoolteachers on the basis of seniority and credentials rather than performance.

Holding Wisconsin teachers accountable for performance isn’t what all the street protests, the sit-ins and the vein-popping hollering are about. To Republicans, the conflict is about tearing down a corrupt system in which Democratic Party officials and public-employee unions feather each others’ nests at taxpayers’ expense. To Democrats, it’s about shadowy billionaires underwriting GOP efforts to crush the union movement.

Ignore all that for a moment and follow my logic here. If there is one thing upon which liberals and conservatives who study educational reform agree, it’s that the single most important thing schools can do to improve the quality of public education is to hire good teachers. The academic research all agrees on that point. The big question among the wonky intellects who debate public policy issues is how to staff schools with good teachers.

One way to upgrade the overall caliber of the teaching profession is to weed out the bad teachers, but that is nearly impossible when public-employee unions negotiate contracts that eliminate the ability of school management to fire.

Dan Goldhaber and Roddy Theobold of the Urban Institute analyzed how Washington state school districts handled the layoff of 2,000 schoolteachers at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. A teacher’s seniority was the greatest predictor of whether he received a reduction-in-force (RIF) notice, they found, but teachers with master’s degrees or those who were credentialed in “high-need” fields such as math, science and special education also were less likely to be furloughed. Teacher effectiveness was not a factor in determining who got axed.

Because teachers who keep their jobs are more senior and thus earn more money than those who are laid off, Mr. Goldhaber and Mr. Theobold observed, more teachers had to be furloughed. “We conservatively calculate that districts would only have to lay off 132 teachers under an effectiveness-based system in order to achieve the same budgetary savings they achieved with 145 RIF notices under today’s seniority-driven system,” Mr. Goldhaber and Mr. Theobold wrote.

But that’s chump change compared to the impact good teachers have on the lifetime earning potential of their students. As Eric A. Hanushek wrote in a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Some teachers year after year produce bigger gains in student learning than other teachers. The magnitude of the differences is truly large, with some teachers producing 1 1/2 years of gain in achievement in an academic year while others with equivalent students produce only 1/2 year of gain. Students starting at the same level of achievement can know vastly different amounts at the end of a single academic year due solely to the teacher to which they are assigned.”

On the assumption that there should be some connection between a teacher’s performance and his compensation, Mr. Hanushek asks, what is the economic value of superior student achievement? He calculates that in a classroom of 20 students, a superior teacher generates an additional $400,000 in present value of students’ future earnings.

Put another way, Mr. Hanushek estimates that dumping the worst 5 percent to 8 percent of all teachers and replacing them with average teachers “could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings.” The present value of student earnings would be roughly $100 trillion.”

Who are the primary victims of a system geared to protect the rights of the worst teachers? Typically, they are minority students. And that brings us back to Wisconsin. The free-market-oriented MacIver Institute observes that in 2009, 18.9 percent of all Wisconsin students failed to qualify for service in the U.S. Army based on their results in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The figure for black students was 46.9 percent.

By protecting the rights of bad teachers, public-employee unions are costing Wisconsin students hundreds of billions of dollars of future lifetime earnings - and blacks lose the most of all. To borrow from the lexicon of the progressives demonstrating in Madison, one might say public-employee unions are a form of “institutional racism.” If Wisconsin’s Democrats were genuinely worried about the future of America’s minorities or its middle class, they would come out from hiding, join Republicans in revoking the unions’ collective-bargaining rights and campaign to put better teachers in Wisconsin schools.

James A. Bacon is the author of “Boomergeddon” and publisher of the Wonk Salon blog at thewonksalon.com.

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