Why Vouchers?

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There are many good reasons to support school vouchers for poor families.

There are many good reasons to support school vouchers for poor families. But one of the best has been consistently overlooked: Vouchers will be good for teachers.

In fact, from a teacher's point of view, voucher programs are just about the best of all possible education reforms. Here's why: Vouchers increase the number of choices available to teachers and spark heated competition for talented educators. Growing voucher programs will almost certainly bring better pay, improved working environments, and more respect to the teaching profession.

Let's start with one basic premise: The average public school teacher cares deeply about her students, knows quite a bit about how people learn, and works tirelessly to help students achieve. This same "average teacher" probably works for an unresponsive district bureaucracy. She receives insufficient support from the administration. And she is markedly underpaid.

What's the problem? A lack of teacher choice. Compared to doctors or lawyers, for example, teachers have very few options for employment. In most poor areas—where well-funded private schools are rare—a teacher must work for the local public school district if she wants to earn a living wage. Every public school in the area is a part of this bureaucracy: same pay, same benefits, same rules.

From a teacher's point of view, voucher programs are just about the best of all possible education reforms.

Of course, an educator will often have the option of working for five to six school districts within driving distance of her home. But nearby districts rarely differ significantly in benefits or pay, and all of these districts have to follow the same set of Byzantine state regulations.

For a doctor or a lawyer (or virtually anyone else), unlimited choice is so obvious that we rarely think about it. Should I work for a small firm or a large one? Should I accept a great salary for a 70-hour workweek, or a smaller salary and fewer hours? Should I work with a bunch of young, energized upstarts or with a group of knowledgeable veterans? Which potential employer holds values most similar to my own?

Teachers have a right to the same breadth of choices that the rest of us take for granted.

Proponents of vouchers typically advocate increased choice for parents and students. The argument is familiar: Vouchers make it much easier for all sorts of alternative providers to spring up in poor areas. Instead of being at the mercy of one unresponsive bureaucracy, disadvantaged families are served by many different providers with many different models. Since parent choice dictates where the money flows, schools will increasingly target the needs of the local population.

But teachers also benefit when more choices are available. As providers proliferate and schools become more diverse, teachers have more options. An educator can choose to work at a school that reflects his or her values, skills, experience, and personal goals (say, a mixed-age classroom on a year-round calendar with bilingual instruction). Another teacher with different needs can go elsewhere.

But even more important, vouchers will generate competition for good teachers. To be successful in a voucher system, a school must convince parents to enroll their children. What will the vast majority of parents care about? The quality of teaching. Thus, successful schools will be those that can recruit and retain the very best teachers. With so many different providers trying to recruit good teachers, all sorts of benefits will follow. Salaries will go up, and support for teachers will improve.

Vouchers increase the number of choices available to teachers and spark heated competition for talented educators.

Economists have two terms that apply to our current system of public education: monopoly and monopsony. These two terms are different sides of the same coin. A monopoly exists when there is only one seller of a certain product or service. A monopsony exists when there is only one buyer.

From a parent's perspective, the local public school district is a seller of educational services. And it's really the only seller: Ninety percent of American students attend public schools. This is a monopoly that Bill Gates could envy.

A teacher, on the other hand, sees the public school system as a buyer, since schools pay educators to teach. Because public schools control 90 percent of the market, these public school districts can dictate the terms of employment. This is a classic case of monopsony.

That's why teachers now need unions. An individual has virtually no bargaining power against the monopsonistic school system and its 90 percent market share. Joining a union helps level the playing field.

But what happens when the monopsony is broken and competition reigns? According to economic theory, salaries will go up, and working environments will improve. (For an extreme example, look at what happened to the salaries of baseball players once free agency allowed them to negotiate with multiple teams.)

In a full voucher system, teachers are freed from the need for unions. Like doctors and lawyers, they become full professionals, free to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Teachers have a right to the same breadth of choices that the rest of us take for granted.

There is already some evidence that vouchers lead to these predicted gains. The Los Angeles Times reports that, since accepting voucher students, St. Anthony's Elementary School in Milwaukee has been forced to raise its starting teacher salary from $22,000 to $30,000. That's a 36 percent increase.

It's natural for many teachers—and their unions—to fear vouchers. The current system, no matter how dysfunctional, is very stable. Teachers know whom they'll work for, what problems they'll face, and how little support they'll receive.

But freedom is calling. Liberated from the monopsonistic school system, the vast majority of teachers will be rewarded by growing competition in the educational sector. They'll be rewarded not only with better pay, but also with more support from administrators, more accolades from parents, and more respect from the community.

For reassurance, teachers need only look around at professionals in other fields. Doctors and lawyers are paid high salaries partially because they participate in the marketplace. Hospitals compete for good doctors, whether they are world-class heart surgeons or effective family-practice physicians. Clients compete for good lawyers in much the same way.

One criticism of voucher programs is that they rely on "cutthroat competition" to improve schools. This is true: Any school that fails to attract students will have to close.

But this competition will be overwhelmingly positive for the average teacher. If schools must convince parents to enroll their children, then good teachers will be in great demand. Very few parents are so naive to think that flashy brochures and slick sales pitches are more important than good teachers.

Voucher programs unleash the forces of competition in service of educators.

Tim DeRoche worked as a consultant to the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1995 to 1997, assisting in the implementation of the LEARN reform plan. He is currently an educational television producer and science writer, and can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected].

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 37

Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Why Vouchers?
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