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Of Teacher Strikes, Inigo Montoya, and Claims of 'Justice'

In response to my various scribblings on the teacher strikes, as you might imagine, I've received lots of feedback. While there are a range of opinions, one common view holds that my cold-blooded musings on things like staffing levels, pensions, and health-care costs miss the larger moral point. As one writer put it, "This isn't about any of those things, this is about justice." Indeed, I've noticed that "justice" has become rather a motif in this correspondence.

This reflects an intriguing notion of "justice." Indeed, I can't help but picture Inigo Montoya wearily remarking: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  Now, let's be clear. As I've written time and again, I think teachers in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have a point. I think average teacher pay should be higher, that pay for terrific teachers should be much higher, and that the states in question should be spending more on their schools. So, I'm supportive of the central claim that these teachers deserve a substantial boost in pay.

That said, I'm puzzled by claims that calls for raises and related demands advance the cause of "justice." Rather, I see them as a matter of sensible, self-interested public policy. Indeed, I'm not sure what "justice" calls for in these disputes. Does "justice" require that teachers make $52,000 a year? $56,500? $66,000? $96,000? (And should a state's cost of living factor into that determination?) Does "justice" dictate an alteration in the state's capital gains tax and added staff for state agencies, per Oklahoma's teachers? Does it demand rejecting plans to shift future teachers to a hybrid retirement plan, per Kentucky's? To say such things is to do fundamental violence to any serious notion of "justice."

But that's because I don't think the teachers in question really intend to talk about "justice." What they really mean, I suspect, is that they'd like to see states spend more and adopt preferred policies. So, when they speak of "justice," what they're actually trying to do is to lend their demands a compelling moral claim. And, while I get that, I think it highlights an unfortunate pathology in the public square today. Moral claims are, by their very nature, dismissive of competing claims or complexity.

Moreover, the funny thing about moral claims is how they proliferate in response to one another. There are plenty of taxpayers, for instance, who see themselves as having a "just" moral claim to the money they have earned. They see taxation beyond the most incontrovertibly essential as an "unjust" expansion of government. And there are state and local employees other than teachers—such as police, firefighters, road maintenance workers, sanitation employees, librarians, and bridge inspectors—who see themselves as providing critical public functions. If they see their funding being cut in order to boost K-12 spending, they, too, can regard their compensation as a matter of "justice"—and start shutting down fire departments, libraries, and bridges until they decide "justice" has been done.

Indeed, when everyone starts hitching their competing agendas to the siren call of "justice," public decisions morph into a carnival of clashing absolutes. This makes it harder to find common ground, because that requires compromising on principle rather than on preferences. It fuels polarization and mutual contempt, as we gnash our teeth at those who don't comprehend our sense of what is "just." Oddly enough, it can hurt the cause by creating bitter stand-offs where sensible compromise is otherwise wholly within reach. 

What makes things so peculiar in this instance is that teachers have a compelling kitchen-table claim: They'd like to be better-paid. And they have a strong, appealing case. It's easy to argue that teachers are underpaid and also that students and communities are better off when teacher pay is high enough to attract and retain talented professionals. This is why teachers have garnered so much support from parents, taxpayers, and policymakers. Why some think that isn't enough—and seemingly yearn to transform this winning case into a divisive crusade—offers a revealing window into our times.

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