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Home » Edspresso » Teachers' Unions as Monopolies (Michael J. O'Neal)

Teachers' Unions as Monopolies (Michael J. O'Neal)

One can only chuckle at the bumper stickers on SUVs whose drivers look forward to the day when schools get all the money they need and the Defense Department has to hold a bake sale. Bake sale indeed. Annually, public education is a $446.3 billion enterprise. That’s a whole lotta cookies.

Now, the Idaho Education Association wants taxpayers to pony up $180 million more each year for increased funding for education through a 1 percent sales tax hike. A penny here and a penny there, and soon, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen might have said, you’re talking about real money.

You’ve gotta hand it to the teachers unions. They’ve made sure that when the public pie gets sliced, the profession gets its “just desserts”—and then some. In 1960, annual spending on public education nationwide was about $3,000 per student. In the years since, that amount has swollen to over $9,400 per student. Those are inflation-adjusted dollars, so spending on public education in real terms has more than tripled, with dubious results.

For years the teachers unions have sustained a PR campaign that should be the envy of corporate CEOs everywhere. Take the issue of charter schools. Charters expose the cost bloat and inefficiency of the typical school system by doing a better job for about a third less money. They do so primarily by reining in administrative costs, in contrast to school systems generally. In 1960 American public schools limped along with one administrator for every 13.6 students; by 2002 they apparently needed one for every 8.1 students.

The unions, predictably, maintain ongoing jihad against charters, wanting the public to believe they siphon money away from “real” public schools—though maybe it’s the “real” schools that are siphoning money away from charters and other alternatives that would provide taxpayers and kids better results for less money. Yet in 2005 the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, donated $500,000 to a Washington State anti-charter group called Protect Our Public Schools—an Orwellian name, given that charters are public schools.

Another gambit the unions have perfected is to focus on state rankings in spending per student. Now in any ranking along any metric, by definition one state has to be first and one has to be last. A state’s position in the ranking by itself means nothing. I’m just guessing here, but North Dakota probably doesn’t provide much of the republic’s exotic fruit, but no Fargo newspaper is going to report with apocalyptic anxiety that North Dakota “ranks a grim 49th in papaya production” (ahead of Montana, maybe).

Yet that’s exactly how state rankings on education spending are reported, as though public spending were a contest. Some states, though, spend less because their cost of living is lower. Or they use their taxpayers’ money more efficiently than others—like Utah, which outperforms Idaho with about $1,500 a year less per student.  

Then there’s the touchy subject of teachers’ salaries. Whenever the issue arises, the union spin machine gets oiled up to crank out press releases like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. Aided by a compliant press, they pull a sleight-of-hand to create the impression that the starting salary of a 23-year-old with a bachelor’s degree is indicative of salary levels for the profession as a whole and that teachers everywhere are toiling for salaries in the mid- to high $20K range.

In fact, starting salaries for newly minted teachers compare quite favorably with those in such professions as journalism and social work—non-technical professions staffed from roughly the same labor pool (i.e., those lacking aptitude for or interest in such technical fields as mathematics or engineering). Further, salary grids provide automatic increases with years of service. The result? The average teacher salary is $46,000, well above the U.S. median income and roughly 20 percent higher than average teacher salaries in other developed countries. Add in generous fringe benefits, usually 25 percent or more of base salary, and an entirely different picture emerges.

The teachers’ union cartel is a larcenous monopoly. Now, like nineteenth-century robber barons, they’re compounding their larceny by trying to enlist the state to force consumers of their product to fund their monopoly.

Old John D. Rockefeller would’ve been proud.

Michael J. O’Neal is a columnist for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (where this article originally appeared) and a freelance writer.  He lives in Idaho. 

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  1. Taking on my Favorite Enemy, Teachers’ Unions

    I found three very interesting items today that all took teachers’ unions to task for their negative impact on public education. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

    The HiddenCostsofTenure.com web site has been created by Scot…

  2. Andrew Pass says:

    I’ve got to be honest. I’m not sure that I agree with the thesis of this post, though it is interesting. Anybody who knows me knows that I am not a strong supporter of unions. I’ll never forget the time that I was in a discussion with a vice president of the NEA and she said “I guess the difference between you and I is that I support teachers.” I responded, “I guess the difference is that I support students.” That said, I think that the best teachers deserve far more money than they make. The best teachers should be paid as much as the most respected brain surgeons. Rather than attacking the salary of teachers, I might have comented that too many districts have large bureaucracies that are ineffective but expensive. The reasons that charters are able to succeed is because they cut out most of that bureaucracy.

    Andy Pass

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