Conservatives for teachers’ unions

The Times has this piece about the unlikely collaboration between state-level Republicans and teachers’ unions, as Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel have become champions of school reforms. I’m not sure this will last. I guess it’s an example of the story told by Ezra Klein in a June New Yorker, that politicians (increasingly?) choose their policy positions in order to oppose the positions of their opponents, and especially to oppose the policy agenda of the opposing President. So the adoption of the cluster of education reform ideas by various Democrats and by the Obama administration is turning reforms once championed by right-wing think tanks and Republicans like President Bush, into the property of a hated opponent who must be opposed. (One reason that the Republican party seems so stupid right now may be that it is determined to oppose even its own previously good ideas, when they turn up in the hands of Obama.)

But it also occurs to me that there is a decent small-c “conservative” reason for supporting teachers’ unions, which is that they are completely committed to the institution of the school roughly as it exists now — they want to “conserve” it, because the livelihoods of their members depends on its continuity. There is I think good reason to be skeptical of “innovations” in the design of public institutions. In the case of schools versus school reform, let me offer an illustrative tale that I think makes a broadly Burkean point (this is culled from a draft post I wrote last year and never finished; excuse the rambling and roughness pls):

In a piece in The Atlantic, Joe Klein relays this story from his government service in NYC: the city had just created several small schools that were too small to support their own AP programs. Klein wanted to bring in an outside contractor to develop AP courses that would be taped or broadcast or computerized or something, but he couldn’t do it without a regulatory approval, since the rules generally require any offering for high school credit to be offered in the presence of a teacher (i.e., a teachers’ union member). The union squawked and blocked it.

Klein offers this as an example of salutary innovation quashed, but I wondered if it might not be something else: the deflection of a newer, efficient rentseeker by an established, less-efficient rentseeker. My instinct is that recorded classes, chosen and paid for by the government, to meet the requirements of a dumb standardized test, is likely to be bullshit. If the classes don’t start out as bullshit, the ongoing bureaucratic process by which they are modified, approved, and funded each year will make them into bullshit. (Bar preparation has many of these features, for example.) So in this case, the selfish intervention of the teacher’s union preserves something valuable — the rule that students have to be taught by an actual person. Although there are many bad teachers, and too few (and such small portions!), we might think this puts an effective floor on the care that can be given students. “Innovative” contractors would use their entrepreneurial brilliance to find a way to lower the floor.

This may be a general argument for incumbent (monopolistic) rentseekers, even if we recognize that they act against the interests of the public. Incumbent rentseekers use old tech, which puts a ceiling on the efficiency with which they can exploit the public. Teachers’ unions screw the public in their teacher-employment policies, but the public is still getting something in exchange for its money — teachers in classrooms, generally trying to teach. “Innovative” rentseekers have the benefit of new technology and new forms of social organization, which lets them target their efforts more efficiently at exploiting the public. Incumbent rentseekers evolve slowly, and keep out competitors — but both of these are virtues if the new ways of doing things would be worse.

All rentseekers (here, public education providers) are ultimately responding to the incentives of government budgeting, trying to get public money at lowest cost — they all at least threaten to be or become corrupt like the teachers’ unions are. Given that, we need to choose the rentseekers that, if corrupted, will have to give us the most to get money. There’s reason to believe that older rentseekers might be the best choice. (This resonates with the common left-wing argument that favors older institutions over newer “privatized” “profit-seeking” etc. ones, because the latter can’t be trusted, as well as the common plaint against “teaching to the test.”)

(This is also the core of a case for government.)

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