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Workers or Professionals?

At a meeting of upstate school superintendents, one school leader bemoaned the fact that superintendents downstate made a lot more money than we did.  “It’s just not fair, “ he complained.  “We’re doing the same job.”

Doctors-march I had heard that argument before from teachers regarding the disparity between upstate and downstate pay.  “It’s about retirement,” said one.  “Downstate teachers have higher salaries and so they have higher retirement income for life.  It’s really not fair.”

Well, I thought, I don’t think it’s about fairness.  You’re free to move downstate and look for a job there where the cost of living is significantly higher as well.  Salaries here are about as high as the local taxpayers can bear, and as it is we’re among the highest paid people in the area. 

Make no mistake:  I believe our work in education is essential to the welfare of the nation.  But I’m wondering if we’ve reached a tipping point regarding the ability (or the willingness) of the private sector to support the public sector.

Justin Baeder has an interesting take on the current move in Wisconsin and other Northern states to curtail public employees’ rights to bargain.  Baeder argues that as long as teachers consider themselves “workers,” they will be treated as such.  Instead, he says, they should act like professionals – like doctors, for instance – and create their own working conditions, sort of like individual contractors.  It’s a gutsy point of view for a young educator, and it’s one I proposed to my graduate students several years ago with the same knee-jerk response Baeder received.

Comparing teachers and doctors is seductive, but not really valid, of course.  Doctors are far better trained and their training takes a lot longer and costs a lot more. Doctors learn their arts and skills through lengthy internships. Doctors don’t have summers and holidays off.  Doctors rarely come from the lower third of their high school class.  Doctors don’t have to worry about finding a job; there aren’t more of them than we need. There’s no Doctor for America program that allows new college graduates to operate after five weeks of training. And, of course, doctors aren’t paid with tax dollars.  Directly, that is.

Baeder is correct in that historically collective bargaining has been a right won by workers rather than Wisconsin professionals.  However, it’s naïve to think that unhappy teachers could just pack up their books and materials and “take their talents” to a more appreciative school given the glut of teachers in some academic areas as well as districts’ unwillingness to pay for experience.   It's not just in Wisconsin that non-government workers are beginning to object to paying for their own health care and retirement AND paying for the same or better benefits for public employees. 

Still, the situation in Wisconsin reeks of self-serving posturing among legislators and the governor.  Add his foolish and revealing remarks to a prank phone caller and his “take no prisoners” attitude, and you’ve significantly raised the stink factor.  And what exactly does the right to collective bargaining have to do with reducing the budget?  It’s called “bargaining” after all – both sides have to agree to the contract.

But teachers are posturing too.  During the past year I moved from a state with strong teachers’ unions to a state in which teachers have no bargaining rights.  I’m not seeing all the dreadful conditions for kids that organized labor predicts. In fact, it looks a lot like the state I left.

The move for school reform isn’t going away anytime soon.  Joe Klein in his thoughtful piece in Time this week recognizes that Scott Walker would be trying to bust public employees’ unions even if Wisconsin had a budget surplus.  But Klein speaks to our ambivalence in wanting to support teachers’ rights but recognizing that things can’t continues the way they are.  “The existing arrangements between government and its employees clearly need a profound overhaul,” he writes, “but the idea that American can return to the mythic stability and prosperity of 40 years ago without a well-paid middle class, including public employees, seems a very dangerous experiment to undertake.”

In the meantime, you have to wonder what Wisconsin voters thought they were getting when they elected some of these guys.






Thanks for your comments, Suzanne. I agree that packing up and moving to a new state or district isn't a strong option for most educators, but I would argue that as our definition of professionalism evolves for the 21st century, this is something that we need to consider.

If we truly want teaching (and school leadership, which I will lump in with teaching) to be seen as a profession, we need to take on the responsibilities that professionalism entails, including the ability to walk away from unacceptable employment circumstances. Given the rapid decline of support for collective bargaining and teachers' "rights" as workers, this is really our only viable option.

When our best people can and do walk away from such conditions, it sends a clear message to districts, states, and policymakers that teaching quality is a human capital issue. If we want great results for kids, we need to attract and retain great people; this is neither cheap, nor possible in a climate of disrespect.

I understand the generational challenge, though: Many people entered teaching expecting to remain in the classroom until retirement, under fairly stable conditions. The job has change dramatically in the years since then, yet other career options (including relocating, finding another job within education, or finding a job outside of education) are not readily available in most cases. This leaves people feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under them - the rules have been changed mid-game - leaving them with no viable options but to fight for their rights (as promised to them when they selected teaching as a career). I certainly understand the necessity of this.

Your points are well taken, Justin. As I'm thinking more about your ideas, it occurs to me that teachers have only to look at superintendents (and to a lesser extent, principals and central office people) when it comes to going where the better jobs are. Another thought is that when teachers are more mobile, salaries cannot simply depend on local taxpayers; otherwise the poorest schools will have far fewer talented people to teach their kids, exacerbating what we already have. It comes down to what we value.

The government should look into this matter and help our fellow workers to make their lives better.

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