As school districts grapple with problems of student achievement and finances, maybe it’s time for them to listen to the parents.

Put Kids First Minneapolis has issued a challenge to the Minneapolis school board: Change your personnel policies to put kids, not adults, first. In brief, they want the board to change the factory-union model of staffing: Give principals the authority to hire and fire the teachers they want. Currently, school leaders have an overly difficult time in firing poorly performing teachers. When they hire, they are forced by district policy and contract to hire from within the existing teaching pool–even if they can’t find a teacher who is a good fit for the school.

As negotiations between the board and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers on a new contract commence, Putting Kids First calls on both parties to have the talks in public.

All of this–their call for personnel reform as well as subjecting negotiations to open-meeting requirements–sounds good to me. But will it happen? What incentive does the board and the union have to make these changes? Little aside from political pressure from a small group of advocates, all of whom (I would guess) are part-time activists.

Teacher unions have a near-death grip on school boards across the country, and I doubt it’s much different in Minneapolis. For one thing, elections to school boards are scheduled in such a way that few people even know when they’re happening. (Did you know that school board elections occurred in Minnesota about a month ago?) That gives the adults with a financial stake in the current system an advantage over parents of students, and taxpayers generally.

The recommendations of Putting Kids First Minneapolis are laudable. They would stand a better chance of being realized were the education sector a fully competitive one, in which schools could be opened and closed as easily as a garden-variety business, based on supply (entrepreneurial education specialists) and demand (parental satisfaction).

Instead, we have something else in the education sector: The end consumers (parents and students) have limited options when it comes to selecting a school. Everything about the schools themselves, from curriculum to discipline to hiring practices, are highly regulated by federal and state law, as well as by a culture that prizes adherence to bureaucratic rules. Would-be school operators, meanwhile, are hamstrung by various policies. (Consider, for example, that charter-school start-ups face various disadvantages compared to public school districts.)

A system of universal vouchers — plus a raft of other reforms — would help address the concerns that Putting Kids First Minneapolis lays out. At the least, it would give school leaders, school boards, and even teacher unions incentives to be nimble, reformist, responsive, and effective. But Putting Kids First Minneapolis opposes vouchers, so they’re relying on political pressure. Unfortunately, that’s like building a house with a limited toolbox.

The Education Action Group, a national organization that has tangled with teacher unions, has more on the story of Putting Kids First and the ongoing negotiations.