The Teacher Union’s Power and Barriers to Entry


Erika Sanzi asks some key questions of the Providence Teachers Union, but the last one cuts right to the heart of unionization, at least in the public sector:

Will the union stand in the way of eliminating the arbitrary barriers to entry into the teaching profession so that we can begin to build a long overdue talent pipeline to include people who come to teaching via an alternative pathway?

The application of some simple logic finds the reason the union will likely answer “yes” to this question — meaning “yes, we will stand in the way” — until absolutely forced to moderate.  The union’s primary value proposition to its members is that it will gain them privileges and security.  The teachers to whom this protection is most valuable are those with the least capacity to fend for themselves and gather their own leverage.

The more talented a teacher is, and the more experience he or she has in other environments than government schools, the less he or she needs the union as leverage against management and the more independent he or she will be as a union member (or bargaining unit member if he or she does not join the union).

Imagine a flood of conspicuously competent people — driven by the mission of turning Providence around and enabled by the extremely desirable compensation packages that government unions have secured — entering the system as full participants.  Not only would those new teachers refuse to stand for the union’s obstruction of the mission’s success, but they would present a stark contrast to the most dedicated union members, who should predictably be the ones with the most need for union protection.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    For what it is worth, and I may be subject to correction. It is my understanding that many teachers in “elite” private schools are not “Certified” and could not teach in public schools. They do seem to turn out some fairly successful graduates.

    • Joe Smith

      Certification is not required, but all teachers in non-public special education schools must be certified. All teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, a criminal records check, and demonstrated competency in the content area or grade levels they teach.

      the tradeoff is those private school teachers generally have little job security / due process procedures so the bigger pool means the school worries less that the lack of certification lets in a poor teacher. According to Federal DOE data, teacher leaver rate is almost twice as high at private schools than it is at public schools.

      That’s not surprising given the private schools can fire easier and the lower pay and benefits in general mean private schools are often an entry step for career teachers.

      Of course, certification is built on the premise that the certification process filters out lower quality, and statistics seems to indicate it filters out poor content learners, not necessarily poor teachers.

      and I think you know Rhett elite private schools have their own filter on the inputs.

      • Rhett Hardwick

        It seems to me that many of the teachers in the lower grades at my daughter’s school were wives of grad, or post grad, students at local universities. Not sure it was a “career” for them. I expect Mr. Chips had made his farewells. When I was a kid, in private schools, I don’t recall a lot of turnover.

  • Joe Smith

    Justin – I didn’t interpret her question in the same way you are. You are viewing it as the certification process keeps out talented folks and instead gives an edge to unions by keeping “less independent” minded potential teachers out.

    I see it more in restrictions like this from RIDE – “A certified teacher may be employed for a maximum of 20% of his/her time in a teacher certificate area and/or grade level for which s/he does not hold a certificate” or the “nurse-teacher” certificate requirement for school nurses.

    I can see the unions fighting this – but not so much because of the quality of membership, but just the general staffing level. For example, if you could assign people just based on their competency to teach – and for many topics at the introductory level the teaching skill is more valuable than the “content” knowledge mastery – you could probably get away with fewer FTEs, especially since sometimes you have to hire 2 people due to the 20% restriction when a capable teacher could probably teach both subjects effectively.

    For sure, if you eliminated the “teacher” certification required of nurses, you could staff that position easier (i’d say cheaper but again it’s a fixed salary based on the CBA).

    I think the more interesting question she posed is the bumping one – you won’t ever get seniority waived for elimination (not in this state!), but assignment flexibility would be a huge change.

    “Not only would those new teachers refuse to stand for the union’s obstruction of the mission’s success, but they would present a stark contrast to the most dedicated union members” – kind of like saying well in perfectly competitive markets the free entry and exit drives the price down to the most efficient, market clearing equilibrium – problem is reality is often not neatly conditioned like the underlying theory.

    Maybe I’m cynical because I know a few teachers who are models for what you speak – prior corporate/military professionals, generally in it for the personal fulfillment (and health benefits). They do their job well, take pride in students wanting to take their courses and succeed, but they also don’t get overly invested in what the “bad” teachers are doing unless it directly impacts them personally.

    Or I would like to have thought that ‘competent’ priests would never have allowed the abusers in their ranks and the church leadership who tolerated them to remain unchallenged. We always hear it was the minority of priests – well, if the majority of priests were so conspicuously competent, how did the culture persist for so long in the church?