A dispute over teacher working conditions in USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provides a window into the workings of the public school system and its problems. There is a way out, but it’s not happening in Kansas.
Public school teachers want to be recognized by the public as professionals. But when Wichita school district management seeks to actually manage teachers, the union intervenes, and change must be negotiated.
The issue, according to Wichita Eagle reporting, is that the school district “wants to start requiring teachers to write detailed lesson plans, file grades online every week and contact each student’s parent or guardian at least once per grading period.”
This request was deemed “insulting” by United Teachers of Wichita, the union for Wichita public school teachers.
Right away we can see some problems with public education, illustrated for all to see here in Wichita. First, why are the working conditions of Wichita schoolteachers a public matter? The answer is, of course, is that they are public employees, paid by tax dollars, and the public therefore has an interest and a right to know certain things.
This interest — and controversy — was played out in some of the comments left to the online version of this story. Two controversial issues argued about include whether teachers are paid too little (or too much), and how many hours teachers work (or not).
Both of these issues relate to professionalism. Most professional employees are paid based on performance or an agreement struck between the employee and management. That’s not the case in most public school systems, including Wichita. Here, teacher pay is based solely on two factors: longevity and education credentials earned. There is no opportunity for any teachers to earn more, no matter how they distinguish themselves. The reverse is true: the poor teachers earn the same as the outstanding. This lockstep pay scale is not characteristic of professional employees.
Regarding how much teachers actually work, I’m sure some work long hours to complete their work. But the union contract for Wichita teachers is full of language like “The ending time of the school day in each building shall be seven (7) hours and ten (10) minutes after the beginning time” and “The teacher work day will be increased by forty (40) minutes one day per week for seventeen (17) weeks of the school year for PLC.” Again, union contract language like this is not characteristic of professional employees.
But whether we call teachers “professional” or not is just a label. The real issue is that these issues are a matter for public discussion, and that they cause so much controversy and heated argument. This is characteristic of government institutions that have a monopoly or near-monopoly and are isolated from market competition.
In Kansas, the public schools have a near-monopoly on the use of public funds for education. Unless a family wants to send their children to religious schools, not many have the financial resources to send their children to private schools.
So we are left with a monolithic public school system, a system run by government. People are going to argue about how the system is run. People will resist paying for it. Some people will suffer the delusion that they can have an impact on the way the system is run, only to find out that the system protects itself very well.
In many areas of human life, market competition has found to be the force that makes things better. Market competition doesn’t mean that people have to work harder and longer. Instead it means that there is a marketplace where consumers have a choice. It also means that people are free to enter the market as suppliers, as well as consumers.
In the introduction to The Morality of Capitalism, Tom G. Palmer explains further how genuine capitalism — the system of market competition — is a system of innovation and creativity:
The term ‘capitalism’ refers not just to markets for the exchange of goods and services, which have existed since time immemorial, but to the system of innovation, wealth creation, and social change that has brought to billions of people prosperity that was unimaginable to earlier generations of human beings. Capitalism refers to a legal, social, economic, and cultural system that embraces equality of rights and ‘careers open to talent’ and that energizes decentralized innovation and processes of trial and error. … Capitalist culture celebrates the entrepreneur, the scientist, the risk-taker, the innovator, the creator. … Far from being an amoral arena for the clash of interests, as capitalism is often portrayed by those who seek to undermine or destroy it, capitalist interaction is highly structured by ethical norms and rules. Indeed, capitalism rests on a rejection of the ethics of loot and grab. … Capitalism puts human creativity to the service of humanity by respecting and encouraging entrepreneurial innovation, that elusive factor that explains the difference between the way we live now and how generation after generation after generation of our ancestors lived prior to the nineteenth century.
We don’t experience the benefit of this in Kansas and Wichita public education. Except for religious schools and a handful of private schools that few can afford, education is provided by a government monopoly isolated from the creative and entrepreneurial impetus of markets. We don’t benefit from decentralized innovation. We don’t respect and encourage entrepreneurial innovation. Government programs don’t have these features.
Paradoxically, while supporters of public education are likely to describe capitalism as an “amoral arena for the clash of interests,” we can see that the Wichita public school system is where the clash between management and workers is happening, played out in public.
Instead of the education of children being the responsibility of parents and the concern of those they choose to voluntarily associate with, we have a government program. We fight over it. We destroy civil society, turning over something so vital and important to government bureaucrats and unions.
In Kansas, schools face very little market competition. The public school establishment vigorously beats back every attempt to introduce even small amounts of choice and competition. Instead we are left to fuss over phony reform measures such as Governor Sam Brownback’s current school reform proposal, which is really just small adjustments as to how the existing system will be paid for. The governor has yet to propose any meaningful reform.