When the Legislature removed the requirement that school districts be in place by January 15, it changed the dynamics of negotiations. According to a report in the Star-Tribune, “More than 200 Minnesota school districts remain without teacher contracts, significantly more than two years ago, and there’s no longer a state-imposed Jan. 15 deadline to penalize those that don’t reach agreements.”

There was some rationale for having the deadline–it helped the state budget become more predictable. That was an important consideration, since the state pays for the bulk of school expenses. But the old law was lopsided: It imposed a penalty on the district, but not on the union. You might say that the penalty ought to apply to both, but then again, I’m not sure a penalty is a good policy in the first place. After all, it’s not as if members of the board that doesn’t come to an agreement will suffer personal financial harm.

But I’d like to focus on a few other interesting things I found in the article:

#1 The problem of “I can’t do anything to earn more money.”

“The latest settlement [in the Anoka Hennepin district] grants no cost-of-living increases for a third straight year, meaning about half of the teachers will see no increases after raises for experience and education are factored in.”

The term “raises for experience and education” means this: a bigger paycheck. Yet you may sometimes hear a teacher say something like “we haven’t taken any pay raises in X years.”

That is true for teachers who have reached the top end of their pay scale. (Quick example: You’re a teacher and you have an MA. You get another $500 for each year of experience you have, up to 10 years. But each additional year after 10 yields no extra pay.)

But why should that be? This time-plus-credits approach offers no incentive for outstanding service, and no disincentive for mediocre service. Bring some elements of performance-based pay into effect, and those teachers with 10+ years of experience can hope to earn a bigger paycheck.

#2 There’s more to compensation than the paycheck.

In St. Paul, a key issue has been whether to limit class sizes, as teachers seek.

All other things equal, a teacher with 25 students have an easier job than a teacher with 35 students. Moving to smaller classes is a way to increase teacher compensation, since it represents the same pay for less work.

#3 The Legislature and governor should stop using the school-aid shift as a budgeting tool.

The biggest factor in delayed settlements this year is late approval of state aid to schools in the July special legislative session after Minnesota’s government shutdown.

When the state obligates itself to pay for something, it ought to pay on time. Enough said.

#4 The problem of the board and the union working against the public.

The early settlement made it easier for the district and teachers to work together to pass two of three levy referendums on the November ballot.

Contrast two sets of actors. The first is a private company and its union. The second is a school board and its union. Both sets of actors have two tasks: Decide how to increase their revenue, and decide how to divide up the money that’s already coming in.

But the two groups have some substantial differences.

The private company can go out of business, moderating the demands of its union. Public schools, as units of government, cannot go out of business. This removes some of the incentive that would moderate the demands of the union.

The private sector company and union cannot compel anyone to buy its product. The public school (more or less) can.

The private sector union has very little say in who sits on the board of the company. The public school union is almost always a significant and even dominant player in the process of deciding who sits on the board–leading to the spirit, if not actual practice, of self-dealing.

As a result, in the public sphere, the union and the management work against the public.

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What’s the solution? Here’s my ideal: Every student gets $X per year from state and local funds, which can be used for any school. (This sounds like a voucher, but it could be organized along the lines of a refundable tax credit as well.) Give districts much more flexibility in how they spend money and let them charge tuition. Make it easier for charter schools and even for-profit schools to open. Let parents supplement the voucher/credit if they wish, so some schools can offer a high-priced business model and others can offer a low-priced model.

And then let the hundreds of thousands of parents, students, teachers, and board members, of all sorts of different schools, sort it all out through their voluntary actions. Schools that don’t come to a sustainable financial arrangement in time suffer the consequences. Those that do reap the rewards.