Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s deregulatory proposal is fine, as far as it goes:
State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner has proposed opening up Rhode Island teaching vacancies to certified teachers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, one way to increase the pipeline for teachers in hard-to-fill subjects.
“We have to expand the ways teachers get certified,” he said Tuesday. “If they are certified in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Rhode Island is open for business.”
Right now, Rhode Island, along with much of the nation, has a difficult time finding teachers for secondary math and science, special education and English as a Second Language. Districts currently rely on emergency certifications to fill these positions. But those teachers must renew their emergency status every year, a burdensome process.
The larger problem, here, isn’t the challenge of certification, but the rigid pay scales that labor unions force on the profession.
I recently had occasion to socialize with a group of women in an education-related field, and an old topic came up: (1) the difficulty of breaking into the public school system as a teacher, combined with (2) the low pay of private schools. I’ve always found the explanation based on economics to be most compelling.
Teaching is, by its nature, a rewarding occupation, and for some subjects, grade levels, and styles of teaching, it’s not very difficult. Then factor in the summers off, amounting to a 180-day work year, which is about 20% shorter than the American private-sector average, and don’t forget how cute kids can be. Add to this mental image another: a highly trained person with advanced technical know-how asked to work at a potential pay decrease (versus other options) with teenagers in a highly bureaucratized and political environment.
Nobody should be surprised that, when we allow unions to impose a rigid pay scale to this system, the market sends signals that attract too many people for some positions while failing to raise the pay sufficiently for others.
Treating teachers, who ought to be categorized as vastly differentiated professionals, as if they all do very similar job with comparable requirements and stresses is foolish. By doing so, we drastically limit the ability for pay to accurately price hard-to-fill positions versus those that attract more qualified applicants than the system needs.
Opening the door to teachers from other states is a worthwhile step (although it ought to be limited to the hard-to-fill positions absent broader reform), but what Rhode Islanders should demand is more flexibility in the pay scale, so that the system can open up to Rhode Islanders in other professions. If our society needs science teachers and finds it necessary to raise pay so high that schools can compete with the private sector for actual scientists, then that is what must happen. And with taxes as high as they are, we do not have the option of raising pay for some positions while keeping the rest at their current level. Some must go down, moving forward.
Unfortunately, the unions’ value proposition is mostly to the large number of teachers who benefit from a system that boosts their pay beyond the level that the market would set. It is in their interest, in other words, to leverage the value of highly advanced teachers to force up pay even where there is no justification for doing so.
That brings us to the old complaint: Our education system is designed to benefit the adults employed with in it rather than our children.