A more perfect union

Mickey Kaus points to a hopeful break in the DNC's love affair with the teacher's unions:

Things We Thought We'd Never See: Democrats Rally Against the Teachers' Unions! I went to the Ed Challenge for Change event mainly to schmooze. I almost didn't stay for the panels, being in no mood for what I expected would, even among these reformers, be an hour of vague EdBlob talk about "change" and "accountability" and "resources" that would tactfully ignore the elephant in the room, namely the teachers' unions. I was so wrong. One panelist--I think it was Peter Groff, president of the Colorado State Senate, got the ball rolling by complaining that when the children's agenda meets the adult agenda, the "adult agenda wins too often." Then Cory Booker of Newark attacked teachers unions specifically--and there was applause. In a room of 500 people at the Democratic convention! "The politics are so vicious," Booker complained, remembering how he'd been told his political career would be over if he kept pushing school choice, how early on he'd gotten help from Republicans rather than from Democrats. The party would "have to admit as Democrats we have been wrong on education." Loud applause! Mayor Adrian Fenty of D.C. joined in, describing the AFT's attempt to block the proposed pathbreaking D.C. teacher contract. Booker denounced "insane work rules," and Groff talked about doing the bidding of "those folks who are giving money [for campaigns], and you know who I'm talking about." Yes, they did!

As Jon Alter, moderating the next panel, noted, it was hard to imagine this event happening at the previous Democratic conventions. (If it had there would have been maybe 15 people in the room, not 500.) Alter called it a "landmark" future historians should note. Maybe he was right.

The problem with teacher's unions is inherent in the way that Democrats talk about unions:  by banding together, they say, you create a powerful counterweight equal and opposite to the power of the companies in negotiations.

So the schools have a gigantic, powerful bargaining bloc.  Who doesn't have a bargaining bloc?  The kids. 

Of course, the customers of corporations don't bargain with unions either--but they have the right of exit, which is what prevents the unions (or their corporate bosses) from turning them upside down and shaking them until the last nickel falls out of their pockets.  Unsurprisingly, the schools in this country that function worst are the ones where the kids have no realistic ability to exit.  So for whom are those schools run?  The teacher's unions, the principal's unions, the janitor's unions, the friends and relations of people with seats on the school board.  The children have the least powerful voice.  Which is why, as far as I can tell, every single thing that is proposed by any of these groups "for the children" has the primary side effect of employing more teachers/janitors/principals, paying same more, or making their jobs more pleasant.

Moreover, if you talk to reformers in urban schools--ardent Democrats all!--every single one of them will say that they can't get anything done with the unions blocking them.  Nor are they merely looking for an excuse.  They always come armed with ample, and chilling, cases in point. 

One example:  extraordinary principals can make a big difference in urban schools.  Joel Klein offered a proposal to give principals sizeable "hazard pay" bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars a year to transfer to the most severely underperforming schools in the district.  The principal's union blocked it.  Why?  The principals wouldn't accrue pension benefits on the extra pay.

So what? any sane person would have asked (and indeed, my understanding is that Joel Klein did just that).  The transfer was entirely voluntary.  The principals would be sacrificing nothing, and indeed, getting extra money.  But the principal's union shut it down. 

On the face of it, this seems incomprehensible:  a union turning down a deal that gave some of their members more money, and none of their members less money, and might well turn around some failing schools.  Was this for the kids?  No.  Was it even for the principals involved?  Again, no.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this was about protecting the underperforming principals--making sure no Johnny-come-lately transferred into their school and demonstrated that you could, so, improve the place.  After all, a union's job is to act as if its membership is, save for objective (and usually almost useless) credentials like seniority and education degrees, entirely interchangeable.  Musn't imply that some of the cogs are better than others.

This should not happen.  And certainly, it should not be a policy priority to give these unions the power to make it happen, as it most certainly is for the Democratic party right now.  Leave aside the question of whether unions are just and right in other fields.  Education is too important, and in this country, too screwed up, to tolerate this kind of rent seeking.