Union Bosses Largely to Blame For ‘Spot Shortages’ of Teachers

A news story by Motoko Rich published on the front page of the New York Times print edition yesterday (see below for a link to the electronic version) reports that this summer public school districts across the U.S.  are “scrambling to hire teachers.”

This is undoubtedly true.  But, contrary to what Rich indicates, the teacher shortages in math, science, special education, English-as-a-Second Language and certain other fields are nothing new, and they are not to any significant extent the result, as Rich suggests, of teacher layoffs during the 2008-2009 recession or a reduction in the overall number of young adults entering the teaching profession.

The fact is, as education analyst Mike Antonucci noted in a commentary responding to Rich’s article, from the 2003-04 school year to the 2013-14 school year, the nationwide number of full-time equivalent K-12 public school classroom teachers rose from 3.044 million to 3.122 million, or 2.6%.  Meanwhile, from 2004 to 2014, the U.S. K-12 school-age population (five to 17 years old) grew by just 0.9%.

There are actually two reasons, completely ignored by Rich, for the substantial and growing shortage of qualified teachers in fields like math and science. First, teachers and prospective teachers with certain types of specialized knowledge can nearly always command much higher salaries in the private sector than they can in public education.  This is not nearly so true of other teachers. Second, the so-called “single salary schedule” used to determine teacher pay rates in the vast majority of school districts in the country does not allow school officials to offer higher pay for hard-to-fill teaching positions.

Many school officials who routinely fail to fill math and science teaching positions, or fill them only with teachers who actually specialize in other fields,  would undoubtedly scrap the single salary schedule, but for the entrenched opposition of teacher union officials, especially local and state officers of the National Education Association (NEA) union.

And teacher union officials have for the most part succeeded in blocking significant reforms of the single salary schedule because of state and local public policies authorizing them to act as the “exclusive” (monopoly) bargaining agents of all the K-12 teachers in a school district.

Since 2000, the NEA Representative Assembly has regularly approved resolutions endorsing a single salary schedule that rewards teachers for experience and advance degrees, regardless of subject area. One NEA resolution explicitly condemns offering higher pay to math, science, special ed, and other teachers qualified for positions that school districts have trouble filling than to any other teachers:  “The [National Education] Association opposes providing additional compensation to attract and/or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions.”

Typically, elected officials and school administrators are so intimidated by the furious teacher union-boss opposition they know they will face if they try to introduce differential pay that they don’t even try. And when they do, they rarely succeed. On the other hand, NEA union officials’ preferred “solution” of raising all teachers’ salaries to fill shortages that exist for roughly 15% of K-12 positions is too flagrantly hostile to taxpayers’ interests and too unrealistic to be achievable anywhere in the U.S.

Yet, if the opposition of monopolistic teacher unions were removed, complete abolition of the single salary schedule could, over the course of a relatively short time, allow school districts to offer substantially higher pay for teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas without imposing additional burdens on taxpayers.

The reason is that the single salary schedule, in addition to dictating far-below-market pay rates for a relatively small share of teachers, , mandates above-market pay rates for teachers who earn graduate degrees, regardless of the field of study, even though objective research has failed to find a single positive effect of teacher graduate degrees upon student performance.

School districts could also free up funds to increase pay for hard-to-fill teaching positions by making the currently automatic pay raises granted to teachers after every year of employment contingent on meeting minimum performance standards.

In addition to hurting schoolchildren and taxpayers, teacher union officials’ stubborn opposition to significant reform of the counterproductive single salary schedule obviously shortchanges many educators. And in more than 20 states, public policy adds insult to injury by empowering government union bosses to force teachers who choose not to join their organization to fork over fees to it as a condition of keeping their jobs.

In its upcoming term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case in which independent-minded educators are challenging the constitutionality of forced union fees in the public sector.  The Friedrichs case, which is based largely on precedents argued and won by National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation attorneys and their clients, would not eliminate teacher union bosses’ monopoly-bargaining privileges.

But it would stop Big Labor from pouring salt in the wounds of educators whom this system harms by forcing them to bankroll it.

As a 1979 book coauthored by political scientist Robert Schuettinger and economist Eamonn Butler showed in detail, politically imposed controls on prices or wages invariably lead to shortages of goods or workers. Shortages of math, science, special ed, speech and other types of teachers are no exception. And union bosses who staunchly oppose paying such teachers what the market says they’re worth bear the brunt of the blame. Image: www.ebay.com.sg

Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional)