I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, March 26, 2012

The "Real" World

Bruce Baker breaks down two reformy arguments that are at the intellectual level of what I hear daily on the monkey bars:
Taxpayer outrage arguments are in style these days (as if they ever really go out of style). Two particular taxpayer outrage arguments that have existed for some time seem to be making a bit of resurgence of late. Or, at least I think I’ve been seeing these arguments a bit more lately in the blogosphere and on twitter.  First, since now is the era of crapping on public school teachers and arguing for increased accountability specifically on teachers for improving student outcomes, there’s the “I pay your salary so you should cower to my every demand” argument (I’ve heard only a few warped individuals take this argument this far, but sadly I have!).  Second, there’s the persistent I pay for those schools and don’t even use them argument, or the variant on that argument that I pay twice for schools because I send my kids to private schools.
It's just so sad that an eminent scholar like Baker has to address this nonsense, but that's the world we live in now; I'm very glad to see him willing to engage this silliness, even as I wish he didn't have to.

There's one other argument that I think runs parallel to these two: "Teachers shouldn't have tenure, because no one else has it in the real world." The logical response, of course, is that there is no other job like teaching, but that never seems to placate the trolls who want to gut tenure. So let me go little deeper.

Tenure is nothing more than a due process guarantee: you can't fire a teacher without showing cause. That's it. You can certainly make the argument that tenure hearings have become too prolonged and expensive. I happen to agree that they are, and think we should cap the length and costs of tenure hearings by having dedicated administrative judges run them. This would encourage more tenure hearings, which I think is fine, but it would also protect taxpayers and teachers from political interference and cronyism.

The argument against tenure, however, seems more rooted in the idea that any employer should be able to fire an employee at will - as if this were the case in the rest of the workforce. But professionals sign employment contracts all the time, and their employers cannot void those contracts without showing cause. Further, many professionals like doctors and lawyers enter into partnerships where they have contractual rights; senior partners can't just vacate their agreements with junior partners whenever they want.

The plain truth is that medium- to large-sized companies do not fire employees on a whim, even when they don't have contracts. HR departments spend a great deal of time and resources putting together policies and procedures, and approach the firing of employees with great care. They do so because the threat of lawsuits is real; do we want that same threat constantly hanging over schools?

Contracts have a mutual economic value: you give something, and you get something back. If tenure is eliminated, what are teachers going to get in return? Basic microeconomics suggests that the supply of qualified teachers will decline if you take away a benefit like tenure; what is society prepared to replace it with? More money? Hardly seems to be a deal for the taxpayers.

Look at it this way: if Kobe Bryant could be fired at any time, for any reason, wouldn't he demand a lot more money up front for every game he played? The contract has a value for the Lakers's front office, because it keeps Kobe's price lower than if he played without one; they are saving money when they offer him a contract.

I know the persistent dumping on teachers these days has convinced some that the skills and talents teachers bring to their jobs would qualify them to do little more than run the fryer at McDonald's. But even the reformiest of the reformy admit that teaching is not easy. The pool of people qualified to do it well is considerably smaller than the pool of those with a four-year degree. You have to have some level of decent compensation to attract qualified people to the job.

Tenure is part of that compensation, and it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime; in fact, it saves them money. In the real world, that sounds like a deal politicians shouldn't give up without some serious reservations.

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