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Wisconsin Busts Public Unions—What’s Next?

A major blow was landed as Wisconsin legislators abruptly passed Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting plan. Other states, perhaps emboldened by Walker’s victory, may soon take the same path.

The worst-case scenario we all have in mind is that education will become a less attractive profession and talented people will leave, to be replaced by those with inferior qualifications and fewer career options.

Let’s examine this fear, though: Under what conditions would a decline in teacher compensation lead to a decline in human capital in the education profession?

First, human capital will decline in specific areas (subject and geographic) where education salaries fall substantially below those in comparable private- or nonprofit-sector jobs.

Second, human capital will decline in areas (again, both subject areas and geographic regions) where the working conditions are subpar relative to comparable jobs in other sectors.

None of these scenarios (other than the pay cuts) are foregone conclusions, though. It’s possible that some subfields in teaching will pay more as a result of de-unionization (because they have to in order to attract qualified candidates, and because there won’t be rules against differential pay by subject area), that the best teachers will stay in teaching and the weak links will leave, or that talented new people who haven’t been able to get jobs will finally be able to. Unlikely, but possible.

Let me be clear: I think higher salaries for educators are good, and pay cuts are bad. Anything that lowers the status of education as a profession is bad in my eyes. I believe that, in general, doing bad things to teachers will have negative impacts on students. The public appears not to be terribly concerned about this risk at the moment, though, so we now have the “opportunity” to find out how these forces will actually play out. As professionals, we must be careful to remain on the side of students, and if it turns out that we’ve been doing some dumb things with education dollars, we need to be prepared to make changes.

Vol. 30, Issue 24, Page 8

Published in Print: March 16, 2011, as Blog of the Week
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