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