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Are Teachers Worth More?

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Are Teachers Worth More? To The Front – with Nigel Kearney

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Minister Trevor Mallard. Should Education Minister Trevor Mallard even be involved in teacher pay disputes?

The ongoing industrial action by secondary teachers unions has invariably been accompanied by the plaintive yet persistent catch phrase 'Teachers are worth more'. There have also been calls for more teachers as well as more non-contact time, however since teachers rejected an offer containing both of these, it has become clear that salary levels are at the heart of the dispute. What is the best way to determine how much teachers are really worth?

In a free market, the answer would be simple: teachers would be worth the amount that education consumers were willing to pay. However, our secondary education system is not a free market. The government has a virtual monopoly, a large percentage of schools are state-run and the remainder are largely government funded.

Payment is involuntary as schools are funded through general taxation. Teacher registration laws mean that staff must be pre-approved by Teachers Colleges and unelected officials. In fact, Colleges of Education can sidestep even Government oversight by claiming academic independence. School Boards of Trustees do their best, but with no say in funding or salary expenditure, their ability to address major issues of concern is strictly limited.

Under the present system, the answer to the question of how much teachers are worth is that it's completely irrelevant. The government can offer whatever it pleases and teachers must accept the offer, give up teaching or leave the country. That's what happens when you're subjected to a monopoly. In fact, it's worse when that monopoly is the government because a business might be required to open it's books and prove that it couldn't afford pay rises. The government has a surplus of over 900 million and has chosen to invest in Kiwibank, Air New Zealand and the Super Scheme. Education is a much better investment than any of these.

Within a state monopoly, the only way teachers can extract a decent pay rise from the government is to appeal to voters. People want the best for their kids and might be persuaded to vote for a government that promises to deliver better public education. There are several problems with this, however. Firstly, voters only get one party vote every three years and they can't use it solely as a referendum on education, there are other issues at stake. Secondly, more than 50% of voters support the present government, albeit for reasons that have little to do with recent developments in secondary education. Thirdly, there's no reason to think that a National government would do any better. Finally, to get voters to sit up and take notice requires extreme actions such as strikes and protest marches.

These kinds of activities are undignified, cost money, hurt kids and can easily be viewed as coercion rather than persuasion. Even if a decent agreement is negotiated, teachers have to go through the whole thing again in a year or two.

Having reached this point, it's clear that the market solution at least deserves another look. In a free market, schools would compete with one another for staff. Currently, teacher demand exceeds supply, so salaries would rise accordingly. This would also result in more graduates choosing to enter the teaching profession, thus alleviating the shortage. Where would the extra money come from? Most of it would be provided voluntarily by parents. At present, the choice is between fully state-funded schools with little or no fees, or fully parent-funded schools with very high fees. For all but the wealthiest families, this means no choice at all.

If the government funded all students (at the present rate per student) and schools were free to set additional fees, there would be a much greater opportunity and incentive for parents to contribute extra funds to the education of their children. A school could increase its funding from $5000 per student to $6000 per student just by charging a $1000 fee. A private school currently charging $8000 per student could provide the same quality of education for only $3000, thus making the school accessible to many more students. Some of the extra money would be spent on better facilities or reduced class sizes and the rest would be added to salaries.

Teachers would, in effect, earn the amount that parents were willing to pay on top of the amount that the government currently pays.

The most common objection to a market solution is based on equality. Wealthy parents would be able to buy better education for their kids than poorer parents. Of course, that is the case now, even more so since the recent zoning legislation. In the above example all that has happened is that the bar has been lowered, allowing more parents to provide better education for their children, at more modest cost. What it comes down to, in the end, is whether we are willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of equality. A system that improves the quality of education for many, and leaves the others no worse off than before, really ought to be regarded as an unqualified success. We shouldn't support policies that 'close the gaps' by holding back those on high and middle incomes while doing little for those on low incomes.

In many countries, teachers unions support funding of private schools. In the Netherlands, for example, over 70% of secondary students attend state-funded private schools with the full support of teachers unions. A survey of unions worldwide found that 35% strongly supported parental choice, 23% strongly opposed it and the remainder had no strong position. The details are here:

There is no obvious explanation for teachers in New Zealand continuing to support a system that requires them to go cap in hand to the government every few years, with the inevitable unpleasantness that occurs during the bargaining process, especially when teachers have been less than satisfied with the outcomes achieved. A competitive model would require schools to outbid each other to employ teachers. Salaries would rise to the level that teachers are worth without Trevor Mallard needing to be involved at all. Teachers should consider getting out from under the state monopoly and supporting a more competitive model for secondary education.

Nigel Kearney

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