Ky. voices: End teacher strikes with more choice, school control

John Garen is a professor of economics at the University of Kentucky.
John Garen is a professor of economics at the University of Kentucky.

The dispute between the Chicago Public Schools system and its teachers union illustrates a problem endemic to large, bureaucratic schooling systems — teacher strikes. Avoiding these harmful and destabilizing strikes is one of the benefits of a decentralized system of schools where each school has control over its hiring, compensation and other school policies.

Presently, in large and centralized school districts like Chicago's, the district has a great deal of monopoly power over teacher pay, benefits and school policy. The natural counter to this is for teachers to form a union. The union interferes with the competitive process where schools compete for teachers by offering a variety of pay, benefits and working environments that fit both the school and the teacher who works there.

Instead, there's a fight for compensation, benefits and working conditions between the district and the union, and the process of finding the best fit among heterogeneous teachers and schools is lost — to the great detriment of the students.

To add fuel to the fire, a big dollop of politics is involved where each side tries to sway public opinion in its favor; again, the interest of the kids gets lost. Moreover, a source of deep frustration for many teachers are bureaucratic rules laid down by school districts involving school curriculum, discipline policy, programs offered, length of day and a host of other policies that frequently serve to impede the job instead of helping it.

With a decentralized system, there is no single set of policies dictated from a central administration. Schools set these as best suits their and their students' needs. Schools will vary based on the diverse nature of student bodies, and the power of individual schools is readily checked by allowing parents to choose among schools. Parents choose schools that best suits their kids; schools compete by finding and retaining the teachers that serve those kids.

An advantage of this for teachers is that it gives them more choice. Teachers can choose to work at schools that adopt the policies that fit their teaching style and philosophy. And teachers at independent schools often have control over their individual school's policies. With this type of competition for teachers and their self-selection to schools they prefer, the impetus for a system-wide strike would essentially disappear.

Teachers also benefit because the decentralized system generates competition for the services of teachers, with many potential schools willing to hire good teachers. Competent teachers dissatisfied with their current situation can find many job offers from other schools. This is in sharp contrast to the single, monolithic school district that has monopoly-like power over the teacher labor market.

One aspect of decentralized decision making is the site-based management of schools adopted in Kentucky with the 1990 education reforms, where a council of administrators, teachers, and parents is allowed to make certain decisions for the school. Chicago public schools are required to have similar councils.

Apparently, this has done little to reduce the predominant influence of the rules and regulations from the respective central administrations in either Kentucky or Chicago.

Of more importance in this regard is freeing schools from onerous rules and allowing parents choice among schools. Charter schools are an example of this. With charters, money follows the children, giving schools a strong financial incentive to adopt practices that parents value. Though Chicago has quite a few charters, Kentucky has none.

In fact, one of the subtexts in the Chicago teachers' dispute is the role of charter schools in Chicago. Most set their own rules and work hard to suit the needs of the kids they serve. However, they tend to pay less than the unionized, regular public schools since the teachers' union has been effective in the political process of obtaining money from the public purse.

Nevertheless, it's a good bet that teachers would give up the greater pay of the bureaucratized public school to work in the better environment of the charter school and do what they are called to do — teach kids in a meaningful way.

Let's hope that Chicago, Kentucky and other schools will continue to devolve control of public education to school and parents. The teachers and kids will be happier and teacher strikes will disappear.