Monday, February 28, 2011

Teachers and Farmers

I've said several times in the last week that there was something unpleasant about watching teachers in Madison last week insisting that the quality of education Wisconsin's children receive will suffer if the legislators there restrict teachers' right to collective bargaining. There's also something distasteful, I think, about demanding that the people who subsidize one's livelihood guarantee salary and benefits in excess of what they themselves enjoy.

Victor Davis Hanson, who has worked in both the private and public sector, places the issue in perspective in an article at NRO.

He begins with these ruminations:
So far the angry teachers of Wisconsin have not yet won over the public. They have not convinced the majority that, in an age of staggering budget deficits, they — or, indeed, public employees in general — must as a veritable birthright enjoy salary, benefits, and pensions on average far more generous than those of their private-sector counterparts, who make up the majority of taxpayers.

Teachers are right that the crisis transcends compensation. Yet why, others might ask, would teachers’ unions oppose merit pay? Why should someone who did not join the union still have to pay its dues? Why should the state have to collect the dues from employee paychecks on behalf of the union? Moreover, when these questions are posed amid a landscape of teachers skipping classes to protest, urging students to join them, and soliciting fraudulent doctors’ notes to cover their cancellations of classes — while their supporters in the legislature hide out to prevent a quorum and thereby subvert the democratic process reaffirmed last November — the public becomes further estranged from their cause.

All of this evoked my own memories of a teaching life juxtaposed with farming in the private sector. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1980 I returned home to work the trees and vines for five years in hopes of helping to restore a run-down farm. I then was employed first as a part-time teacher and then as a professor at California State University, Fresno, for 21 years (1984–2004). Some of that time I continued to farm on weekends and in the summers.

The experience was schizophrenic. In farming, almost everyone I met was constantly hustling — welders, independent truckers, contractors. There was no guaranteed income, no pension other than Social Security, and no health benefits of any kind. I bought a Farm Bureau–sponsored private health plan with a $1,000 deductible — catastrophic coverage that I never found occasion to use — and paid cash for doctor’s office visits. My first two children’s deliveries maxed out my Visa card.

There was no sick leave for the self-employed. A day with the flu meant the amount of work to do the next day doubled.
Personally, I agree with the NEA that merit pay is unworkable in a public school, but aside from that quibble I think Hanson makes some very important comparisons between a teacher's lot and that of the people paying his salary. It's a good read.

That Was Then

Inasmuch as neither Mr. Obama nor his comfy shoes have shown up in Madison, Wisconsin, I guess we can place this promise in the bulging "empty rhetoric" file:
Of course, security concerns make it impossible for the President to actually walk in the demonstrations, but nothing prevents him from flying out to Madison to appear in a secure venue and show solidarity with his union chums. The fact that he hasn't done so makes me wonder if private polling hasn't shown that the majority of Wisconsin voters support Governor Scott's position on cutting state spending and restricting public employees' unions right to engage in collective bargaining. President Obama can ill-afford to further alienate these voters since Wisconsin is a state he'll certainly need if he's to get re-elected in 2012.

Anecdotally, when I started teaching in Pennsylvania in 1969 annual salary for a full-time first year teacher was $6300. Taxpayers back then had a lot of respect and sympathy for the plight of teachers, but things have changed. Today the average starting salary in PA is $35,000 for 187 days of work. Throw in great medical and retirement benefits plus job security, and a lot of taxpayers are wondering why people whose salaries they pay should be better off than they are. Why, for that matter should any state employees live better than the people paying them?

Wisconsin voters decided last November that they've heretofore been very poorly represented in negotiations with the state employees' unions, so they voted to elect people who would strengthen their bargaining position. Now the unions are crying foul, but isn't that how the system is supposed to work? Whoever has the strongest bargaining position gets to impose his will on the other side. This is what public employee unions have done for half a century, but when the other side does it they talk as if this is a great national catastrophe.

If union members have a complaint it's not with the governor of Wisconsin or the state Republicans. It's with the people of the state who said last November that they've awarded their employees enough for their service, and that it's now time to stop.