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Maybe It Is a "Brain" Thing...But I'm Not Waiting for Superpol

When I wrote last week that I stand foursquare behind Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposals to curb public employee benefits and the collective bargaining, my friend Diane Ravitch lamented, "Rick, that's very sad. Someday you'll see the error of having more brains than heart." I won't argue the point, but I will say a bit more about just why Walker's controversial stance speaks to my brain.

As the University of Arkansas's Robert Costrell calculated out last week, Wisconsin's public employees collect 74 cents in benefits for every dollar in salary, more than triple the rate for their private sector counterparts. In Milwaukee, the average ten-month salary for a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher is $56,500 but the total cost to MPS is $100,005. Why? For one thing, the Wisconsin state pension calls for a 6.8% employer contribution and a 6.2% employee contribution, but MPS agreed back in 1996 to pay the employee share as well. For another, the 1982 collective bargaining agreement also grants MPS teachers a second pension, funded entirely by a 4.2% district contribution. As for health care, MPS spends 39% of wages on health insurance, compared to a private-sector norm of 11%. MPS pays the full premium for medical and vision benefits and also grants full health care to retirees, with the district picking up the entire premium in effect at retirement.

Why steer so much money into benefits that do little to improve schooling or services? It's simple, really. Benefit costs are long-term and largely invisible to taxpayers, while they satisfy the demands of political, influential union leaders. Like sugar subsidies or pet Pentagon pork, this makes benefit giveaways as tempting as catnip to policymakers in Madison or Milwaukee. They get to say yes to a concerned constituency, and nobody much complains or cares--at least until the bill comes due (which is now). It's far too appealing for state and local officials to shovel out the goodies, figuring that the public employee union leaders will appreciate it and no one else will really notice.

While politically attractive, these benefits are an awful way to spend scarce money. Retirement benefits and massively subsidized health care aren't much use in recruiting young educators in the modern labor market (in large part, because these benefits are easy for potential hires to overlook). And these promises create huge obligations that suck dollars from schools and classrooms even as they leave future policymakers to foot the bill.

Is any of this the "fault" of Wisconsin's teachers? Nah, not really. Everyone wants the best benefits we can squeeze out of their employer, and the job of union leaders is to squeeze away. (Though, when government employees are organized to demand more funds from government officials whom they play an outsized role in selecting, it's no surprise that the "squeezee" is remarkably pliable.) Is it the fault of public employees that they're a powerful force, largely unchecked by competition or aggressive management, or that state and local officials eagerly pander to them? Again, nope.

If anyone deserves blame, it's gutless, irresponsible legislators, governors, and school board members who have made untenable promises in order to win votes and keep folks happy. The point of reining in public employee collective bargaining is not to "punish" teachers or other employees, but to address the pols' innate, craven tendency to cater to passionate, highly organized interests. Checking this irresponsibility, not just for the moment but for the decades ahead, requires addressing structural incentives. And the problem needs to be checked because, even when states can "afford" these benefits, it's a poor use of scarce resources.

Indeed, the depth of the problem and the measure of the congenital irresponsibility of superintendents, school boards, and state officials is the eagerness with which many are striving to curry favor with their teachers by poor-mouthing Walker. Some see such criticism as evidence that Walker is going too far. Me? I see it as a measure of the problem--a reflection of the temerity that Walker is aiming to tackle. Ed Week's Sean Cavanagh did a terrific job of spotlighting this craven streak last week, quoting Miles Turner, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, protesting, "[Walker's proposal] goes way too far." It's instructive to see supes who claim to be desperately cash-strapped pooh-poohing the potential savings from Walker's proposal, even as the state eyes additional K-12 cuts in the push to close a looming $1.8 billion 2012 deficit. Turner said that many of the superintendents have amicable, "established bargaining relationships" with teachers' unions and frets that if districts and unions could bargain only on wages, it would take districts into "uncharted territory" and create a "very problematic work environment." Of course, given that the placid district-union relationships have been purchased at the cost of grandiose benefits and show little evidence of, you know, responsible management, I'm not sure that these established marketing relationships have worked all that well for Wisconsin's students or taxpayers.

Wisconsin's public employees argue that they are now offering some benefit concessions as evidence that no deeper changes are necessary. I'm not sold. First, as I've noted, this willingness to countenance modest concessions only emerged when the employees sought to counter Walker's more ambitious efforts. Second, if this modest movement is the most that Wisconsin taxpayers can expect, in the wake of the Great Recession and when confronted with a hard-core state executive, I'm profoundly dubious that status quo arrangements will yield any meaningful changes in Wisconsin's crippling benefit outlays.

Just as I reject school reform built on the pursuit of millions of "superman" teachers, so I don't trust the notion that everything will be fine if we just elect leaders with spines of steel, hearts of gold, and a deft negotiating hand.

The problem with collective bargaining by public employees is that these unions are unchecked by competition and wield massive influence as they help to elect their bosses. I get why Wisconsin public employees view Walker's proposal as an assault, but I see a sensible measure to rein in the tendency of pols to serve narrow interests at the expense of the commonweal. If you want pols to address exorbitant benefits and undisciplined budgets, you can tell 'em to "do the right thing" or you can take steps to help them do so (hello, Base Closure and Realignment Commission). Me, I'll leave the "do the right thing" option to those with more heart--to those who think school improvement is just a matter of caring more about kids or spending more or urging teachers to work harder. For better or worse, I'm a head guy. And that's why, as I said last week, I think Gov. Walker is doing the right thing, however bitter the medicine may be.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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