Accountability disputes are best served by competition among schools: the case of the CTU strike

                                       Zach Denver
          The current strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has provided an opportunity to assess how classical liberal ideas can be used to serve all constituencies affected by a union’s decision to go on strike. For some, the solution is to ban public union strikes, as Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is trying to do with a court order presently.  For others, the solution is to disallow public sector unions completely.  There are reasoned arguments to be made for these positions, and the classical liberal ideal is not anti-union per se.  The problem for classical liberals arises not at the point of unionization (which is after all an example of voluntary association), but when the government elects to use force to protect the union over other interests.  In the CTU strike the teachers will ultimately benefit at the expense of the taxpayers, the students, and the parents who are struggling to find alternatives since the teachers pulled out of contract negotiations in the 23rd hour.  A solution that respects the right of teachers to unionize and strike, while also protecting those who rely on the essential service they provide is essential.  The appropriate solution is promotion of school choice.
First, it is important to define  “school choice” for the purposes of this post.  School choice can mean a lot of different things, and a classical liberal would support any mechanism that opened education more substantially to market forces.  For simplicity though, and as a way to respond to the specific concerns of the CTU, when I say “school choice”, I am referring to a voucher system similar to what is used in much of Europe, where the government still pays for individual’s schooling, but the money follows the student, not the school or district.[1]  Under this arrangement, parents have the ability to choose where their children go to school and where the money goes too.  Schools, including public schools, would need to court parents in order to have enough money to survive.  To answer a  common complaint from the left regarding a vouchers; the system could give 1) students with special needs, 2) ESL students and 3) students living in poverty more money to spend on education than their peers so that profit-minded schools would have the incentive to court these students.[2]  This would greatly benefit parents, but it should also benefit the CTU since the school choice model would allow the union to play a greater role in setting the evaluation rules at their own schools, while reformers focus on establishing their own schools.There are two ways to react to the CTU strike if you care about good schools.  You could be a cynic and assume that teachers striking over their evaluation method are crassly trying to avoid accountability.[3]  You could also be an optimist and assume the union means what it says while marching in picket lines, that the focus of the disagreement is about what is best for students, and that standardized tests are a drag on education to be defeated.  Either way, more school choice gives the union what they want without forcing students to endure a lengthy strike.  Addressing the cynical view first, we know that the CTU is not striking over compensation.  They are set to receive a pretty sizable raise over the next four years and they are already averaging $76,000 a year.   I haven’t read anything to suggest this strike is over pay or benefits; instead the crux of disagreement is over accountability.  Mayor Emmanuel wants to include test scores as part of teacher evaluation and the CTU is dead set against it.  My personal feeling as a former teacher is that test scores should play a meaningful role in the evaluation of teachers.  There is a healthy discussion to be had about the means of accountability and I think the Mayor would welcome discussion, but inputs are not enough.  We need a way to judge whether a student has learned something or not.[4]This is the cynical view though, which means viewing the fight over standardized tests as a fight against accountability.  As a concerned citizen it bothers me that the CTU is striking over accountability, but I would be less concerned if there was a market for education.  Parents, concerned with the possibility of a strike could vote with their money, sending children to schools that would not strike.  Teachers, knowing this threat exists would need to think hard about striking, or compensate by doing better than their counterparts who have no ability to strike.  The information that a child’s education could be taken away for a bit while the CTU went on strike would be priced into the market and a parent could pay more to go to a non-union school, or hold out on the belief that union schools were just better.  Either way the parent would make the decision ex ante about how to account for these risks.  Teachers striking over unfair work conditions would keep that essential right because parents would be able to hold them accountable in the marketplace if they disagreed.Maybe I’m being unfair though, and the CTU actually means what it says that they are striking for the children.  I strongly doubt it considering how little schools have improved across the U.S. despite increasing funds for schools and influence for unions despite almost no accountability, but for a moment I will take the optimist view.  Even if the CTU is striking because it believes in its heart of hearts that standardized testing and teacher accountability based on it is bad for students, the school choice model is still the right thing to do for everyone, especially the CTU.  Parents that believe the CTU knows best would add that into their decision making when deciding where to send their children.  If a parent wants his or her child educated in the best way, and the CTU honestly knows the best way better than the Mayor, then the parents would not mind the strike as much.  The CTU would also be able to test its hypothesis that basing teacher accountability on test scores is bad for students if we had a critical mass of schools that actually tried it.In a market for education the ability to strike by teachers would be one of many factors priced into the market that parents could take into account.  The CTU would have to counteract that negative somehow, probably by being better than the alternative.  That is why Chicago teachers, and teachers unions nationwide, should welcome a school choice model where they could demonstrate how much better for children it is when they get to make the rules on their own accountability.  The argument that teachers know best about how to run a school is powerful, but when you use the power of government to restrict any test of that hypothesis, you lose the moral high ground. The biggest victims of the current CTU strike are the Chicago children who will be missing at least a week of instruction and will start their school year in chaos.  For the sake of their own argument that they are in fact benefitting the children, the CTU should be advocating school choice so we can all see why they are right.[5]

[1] New York City uses a hybrid of this where the school’s receive money based on the students enrolled in the school, but it misses the essential step of allowing the parents to choose their school.  Thus schools are funded based on their student population but that population is still determined by city regulation, not by the parent.  This is true except in the cases of charter schools where the parent has affirmatively decided to enroll in a special school, but in NYC and Chicago there are too few charters to make that a choice, and the populations by city law are determined by lottery.
[2] Let’s also assume that if you opt out of the public/charter structure for a religious school or private academy you lose the funding attached to your child.
[3] They are striking over other things as well including recall rights and school supplies, but the biggest flashpoint is over teacher evaluation.
[4] I understand the argument that test scores aren’t a proper measure of learning, and I partially agree, but being able to perform on a high stakes test is an important skill.  Try telling the NY Bar Association that you shouldn’t be judged by a high stakes test, or NYU that the LSAT is too unfair.  Structured application of knowledge is important, and this is at least the best option on the table right now for judging outputs.
[5] For a more conventional libertarian take on the Chicago strike see “Chicago Strike Shows How Unions Stifle Reform” by Steven Greenhut