Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Education and the Public Sector Unions

There is a story in today's Washington Post about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to pay signing bonuses of $200,000 to principals hired to lead dozens of Maryland's lowest performing schools. There are enough serious problems with Maryland's K-12 schools, and especially those in Baltimore, that it is good that the "education issue" is moving front and center in the gubernatorial race. And the notion of paying big signing bonuses to have seasoned principals go in and try to turn around the most troubled schools has a certain appeal, especially if the bonus award is tied to a demonstration of prior achievement as a principal. (It is not clear the extent to which O'Malley's proposal would actually tie the bonus to past demonstrated achievement.) Anything that acknowledges the value of tying the compensation of educators to past meritorious achievements and willingness to undertake difficult future challenges is an idea worth serious consideration.

But read the story closely and you might be struck by something that perhaps is now so embedded in our government that it often goes unremarked: The extent to which most all of our public servants are unionized. Putting aside the teachers' union, the story refers to the "National Association of Secondary School Principals," "the principals union in Prince George's," and the "city administrators union." While no definitive rejection-at-all-costs reactions were reported, the implication of the reporting is that all of these groups would find O'Malley's plan problematical.

I know you know the teachers are unionized. But did you know the principals had their own union? And the city administrators too? I understand that as union membership in the private sector has continued to shrink, the principal target of organized labor for several decades has been the growing public sector. The notion of public sector employees organizing unions to negotiate with the government of which, as citizens, they are part and parcel--in other words, to negotiate with themselves--continues to strike me as an ill-conceived oddity.

In any event, it is not surprising that these public sector unions are wary of any idea that shakes up the status quo, even one that might improve the educational prospects of public school children. It will be interesting to see if O'Malley pushes this or other new ideas in the face of union opposition.