Teaching Profession Opinion

Wisconsin Busts Public Unions - What’s Next?

By Justin Baeder — March 10, 2011 4 min read
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In case there was any doubt that teachers’ unions are falling on hard times in the US, a major blow landed today as Wisconsin legislators abruptly passed Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting plan:

The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money. But Republicans on Wednesday separated from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special committee of lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly approved the bill a short time later. (WaPo)

In a pre-emptive move a few weeks ago, AFT president Randi Weingarten outlined a plan to expedite the removal of incompetent yet tenured teachers. However, this does not appear to have dissuaded Wisconsin Republicans from proceeding with Gov. Walker’s plan, and other states, perhaps emboldened by Walker’s victory, may soon take the same path.

Clearly, the passage of Gov. Walker’s plan is a terrible insult and blow to teachers in Wisconsin. Questions are running through the minds of stunned educators across the nation. How will this affect the career choices of educators and potential educators? What will happen to the education profession? What will happen to kids?

The worst-case scenario we all have in mind (beyond personal “How will I feed my family?” concerns) 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. In short, we fear that the quality of the teaching profession will decline.

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?

(Let me be clear that I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of Wisconsin educators, but this post is about another issue—the broad labor-market implications of union-busting, and the corresponding impact on student learning.)

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. While many people say they would never stop teaching just to make more money elsewhere, many others would, and a salary gap would affect the choices of people considering entering the teaching profession.

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. If the job is difficult, discouraging, and thankless, fewer people will want it, and districts will have to be less selective in hiring.

Obviously, it matters what other employment options are available in the region. If I have a choice between teaching and software development, that’s one thing, but if my choice is between teaching and the meat-packing plant, I might come to a very different decision.

But another factor is the importance of compensation and other working conditions to individual teachers. There are some people who either don’t need the money, or will teach regardless of what they are paid. There are some people who will work in the school where they feel they are needed the most, regardless of how they are treated.

To sum up: If a pay cut happens, and if it shifts the balance away from teaching as a career choice, and if this drives away more of our best teachers than our subpar teachers, and if they are replaced by subpar teachers, then the net effect on students will be a negative.

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.

To understand the actual impact that changes to teacher bargaining and compensation will have on students, we have to examine the labor market conditions, which vary both across regions and between subject areas. For this reason, it’s not fair to say that the end of collective bargaining is an automatic negative for students. For example, let’s say that a district has a given amount of money to spend, and because it is able to cut salaries in some areas, it is able to lower class size. Will this balance out the loss of teachers driven away by the pay cut? It’s hard to say.

These are, in the end, empirical questions, and while I’d prefer not to learn the answers in this way, the economic and political reality is that we will soon learn the true impact of moves like Gov. Walker’s. I can only hope that the data will start to come in from Wisconsin’s schools before other states follow suit.

The opinions expressed in On Performance 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.