Hall of Fame Quarterback Connects With CapCon

Tarkenton Has Both Brains and Braun on His Side

In the Wall Street Journal today, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton makes a vivid contrast between the NFL and public school employees. 

Imagine the National Football League in an alternate reality. Each player's salary is based on how long he's been in the league. It's about tenure, not talent. The same scale is used for every player, no matter whether he's an All-Pro quarterback or the last man on the roster. For every year a player's been in this NFL, he gets a bump in pay. The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases. And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.

Tarkenton’s analogy is similar to one made by my Mackinac Center colleague Ken Braun a few weeks ago (see “Should Teachers Be Treated Less Professionally Than Linebackers?”). Braun writes, “[T]he union’s core agenda protects a system that virtually assures that ‘professional pay’ cannot happen. Engineers, lawyers, doctors and so forth – even unionized pro football players – are compensated based upon their individual talent and accomplishments.”

While there are certainly many differences between public school employees and players in the NFL, there are also many similarities. Both groups are loosely connected to a group (“school” or “team”), both answer to some authority who has some say in hiring and firing (“principal/superintendent” or “coach/owner”), and most importantly, both have skills and areas of focus that separate them from many of their colleagues (the subjects taught in the classroom or the positions played on the field). But as Tarkenton and Braun note, the largest difference is how each of these groups is treated.

Another notable difference is seen in the performance of our public education system compared to the NFL. While our country excels at football, the education system as a whole leaves something to be desired. Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil funding nationwide has tripled since 1970. And here in Michigan, it nearly quadrupled from 1960 to 2007. At the same time, student output has stagnated and in many school districts severely regressed.

Despite spending much more money, the system has not improved. Tarkenton believes making the NFL more like our public education system would yield similar results: “No matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn't get better. In fact, in many ways the disincentive to play harder or to try to stand out would be even stronger with more money.”

The good news is that Michigan has begun some reforms: The tenure system has been tweaked; a set of “best practices” has been adopted; and public employees are not quite as insulated from the economy as they have been in the past. But the vast majority of the policies separating the public school system from the rest of us is still in place: Tenure is still strong; public employees still pay much less for insurance; and compensation is still largely unlinked to performance.

If we want our public schools to be the best they can be, there is still a long way to go.