The rolling demonstrations that began in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights for public sector unions have been the subject of exhaustive coverage by the media. But there’s one aspect that so far has escaped their examination: The reaction to the protests by supporters of free markets exposes the basic contradiction of their position.
The essence of the backlash is that in the Great Recession teachers have it too good at a time when employees in the private sector have it very bad. They get Cadillac pensions, enjoy lavish benefits, have summers off, go home at 3:00, and receive substantial salaries.
If all of these things are true, then why don’t these critics become teachers? After all, if teaching is such a sweet deal, then in a free market it should be attracting overwhelming numbers of applicants. That’s how the law of supply and demand works. It’s the basis for claiming that competition between schools and parental choice will result in good schools thriving and bad schools closing.
These free marketeers, however, engage in selective perception. They could have become teachers if teaching were the plum job they imagine. Instead, they chose to work in the private sector for reasons known only to themselves. No one forced them to follow that route. But rather than looking inward, they misdirect their anger and frustration at teachers, who fought for what they have over the decades through their unions. If unions are as powerful as they maintain, then why don’t they form their own unions and fight for similar benefits?
The fact is that these critics would be shellshocked if they were to become teachers. They would quickly find out that their conception of teaching is a fantasy. It is damn hard work that nothing in their years of experience in business every prepared them for. Otherwise, why would teacher turnover be so high? No business reports a 50 percent churn rate in personnel in five years. In some urban districts, the time frame is three years, according to a 2006 study by the Haberman Educational Foundation. Even Teach for America, which recruits only the elite of the elite, can hold on to only 17 percent of its graduates beyond their two-year commitment.
Teaching is neither for missionaries nor mercenaries. It is a career for those who understand from the outset the sacrifices and payoffs. Whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages is a personal decision. But remember that no career is without tradeoffs. That’s something for critics of the demonstrations to bear in mind.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.