Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dear Jonathan Erwin-Frank

The following is a response to a commentary in the Milwaukee Journal concerning education.

Dear Jonathan,

I read your recent commentary with great enthusiasm, as I share your concerns about the importance of education. It is heartening to find young people engaged in important matters. I hope that you are willing to consider the few points that I have to offer.

You wrote "Not even the most hard-line conservatives would suggest that disadvantaged children do not deserve an education, but some have attempted to change the subject." I admit to some difficulty critiquing the first half of that sentence, but it suggests to me that hard-line conservatives are more inclined than, say, liberals, to suggest that the disadvantaged do not deserve an education. I am not aware of any conservative group, and that includes the Republican Party, to suggest any such thing. So in that respect, it sounds like a gratuitous insult to conservatives. My hope is that you did not intend it that way. With respect to part two of your sentence, I think that for this conservative at least, school choice, competition, or vouchers are not changing the subject at all. To me this is the only reform that might work.

As you continued to develop your argument, you seemed to embrace competition in the form of higher pay for teachers when you wrote "It all boils down to simple economics. If you raise the price, in this case, teacher salaries, suppliers will produce more and more people will want to become teachers, leading to the kind of healthy competition that really benefits schools and children." However, you did not offer any evidence to support your claim.

Ordinarily, you would be correct. Higher pay would result in more people seeking a job. And this would produce better results, assuming that the best teaching candidates were selected and promoted. However, this is not how the public school system works. For example, relative to many other jobs, teacher salaries are quite low relative to their retirement and health benefits. This is no accident, as this is what the teachers unions negotiate for. What you may not realize is the effect this has on competition. For example, a young teacher will receive a low salary and great health benefits. The health benefits here in Racine are in the neighborhood of $20,000 per year for families. Most young people do not need $20,000 worth of health insurance. They would probably prefer the cash, but that is not one of their options. Instead, young healthy teachers actually subsidize the health care costs of their older, less healthy coworkers. The low starting salaries, the costly health insurance plan, and the generous retirement rewards all serve to discourage young people from becoming teachers, unless they are prepared to do so for their entire careers. Also, the job market is changing. People change careers more frequently today. Thus any person who would like to teach for some length of time less than their entire career is also discouraged from becoming a teacher. Also, many bright people have found education degrees to be a monumental waste of time, further discouraging prospective teachers. And finally, teacher pay is not based on merit. It is based on longevity and this is what the union wants. This would discourage the very brightest from becoming teachers, because they will not be properly rewarded for their excellence. Thus they choose other careers. So you see it is not so simple to improve education merely by raising teacher pay. Presently, the system established by the teachers union discourages many people, including our brightest prospects, from becoming teachers. This is done to depress the number of teachers, thus providing an argument for higher salaries and more benefits.

I write to you hoping that you will realize that raising salaries will not necessarily improve education. A larger problem is the stranglehold that the teachers union has on the education system, a problem that could be remedied with more school choice. I suspect that you would not be exposed to this kind of thinking at your school, as it would be contrary to the financial interests of your teachers.

Thank you for your commentary and your interest in this most important of subjects. I will be sharing my letter to you with any readers who visit my blog. If you care to respond, please do so at my blog,

Thanks again. Sincerely, Denis Navratil.


eric said...

I'm 48, I have a couple kids in a private school today. But along the way as we moved around the world during a military career they attended some very good public schools and a very under-funded Department of Defense School, where they still received a pretty good education. Money it seems, from both my anecdotal experiences and comparisons I have read about, is NOT the great difference maker in education. To go a couple steps farther back in time, I have an undergraduate Education degree from UW-Madison and I attended public schools in Racine growing up. As a secondary school student we seemed to be on an every-other-year teachers' strike schedule. The labor union model that teachers utilized made them appear less professional and often in opposition to the public they served, instead of being the expert education partners they were supposed to be. As an Education student in Madison I often wondered if educators wanted/expected the respect similar to what other professions received, why wasn't the education profession structured more similar to say, the legal or physician professions? Why a labor union and not something more akin to the AMA or the BAR? Why not undergraduate work in some special field, followed by graduate work in education? Twenty-six years later I'm still wondering. These things teachers could do to improve their profession. From what I've witnessed and read, more money buys more security and/or a nicer facility, but not necessarily a better education, and I think if you look at private schools you will find they may have both those, but not higher teacher salaries. So look in other directions for explanations for shortfalls in education and you will immediately find that there's a large percentage of the community that at best fails to partner with schools, and at worst is disruptive. So tinker with teachers, tinker with adminstrators, tinker with facilities and programs, but that's all you'll be doing is tinkering on the education margins. Until you get that percentage of ambivalence and disruption to contribute or exit altogether, not much will improve. The school vouchers program is the one bright light that has the potential to solve a lot of the root problems in education, although they won't be cured overnight. The vouchers experiment should be expanded.

Denis Navratil said...

Thank you Eric for the thoughtful response. That makes two conservatives who care enough about the education of our youth to take a stand for kids and against the unchecked power of the teachers union. Perhaps Jonathan may come to realize that conservative viewpoints should not be so easily dismissed. But he won't learn that at school, that is for sure.

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