Will Teachers Benefit from School Choice?


Michael Corliss teaches English and drama at Stevenson High School in Livonia and is a member of the Michigan Education Association.

The U. S. Supreme Court's recent decision to let stand as constitutional a school voucher program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has rocketed the school choice debate to the forefront of the public consciousness. Not surprisingly, the school employees' unions strongly oppose more options for families who wish to choose alternatives to the public school system, claiming (among other things) that greater choice and freedom among schools will hurt teachers financially or professionally. Of course, the unions are doing as they think best to protect their members. But there is ample reason to believe that school choice will actually benefit teachers in many ways. Let's take a closer look at the school choice critics' arguments.

Some charge that allowing families greater educational choices will cause large numbers of students to flee the public schools, resulting in widespread teacher layoffs and unemployment. A moment's thought, however, reveals the flaw in this argument: Demand for teachers will not diminish just because some students change schools. There will still be the same number of students that need professional instruction. Local schools will not close and move across the country, taking jobs with them; rather, parents will choose schools within a reasonable commuting range. If the students leaving the public schools can get to the new schools, so can the teachers.

In fact, school choice is likely to result in a net increase in jobs for teachers. Here's why: Schools of choice will likely not be able to attract students by increasing their class sizes, so many of them will offer smaller classes as one of the main incentives for parents to choose them. And smaller classes- which the unions say will improve education- are possible only with more teachers.

Other critics of school choice argue that teachers will be unable to cope with the disruptions caused by students changing schools. But this is doubtful. Teachers are used to adapting to new situations. They have a new batch of students every year- sometimes twice a year- and they implement new teaching methods and ideas all the time. Sometimes this happens formally, with training and in-service, but more often it is done informally, when one teacher picks up a new idea from another teacher, a magazine or journal article, a graduate class, a parent, or even a student. Often, teachers have great ideas on their own and decide to try them out in class. The "disruptions" caused by school choice will accelerate this process of continuing innovation, which is essential to quality education. Besides, most teachers will tell you that new ideas and new situations are what make their jobs exciting and fun.

Another argument often lodged against school choice is that it will remove accountability from the schools. But is bureaucratic control the same thing as accountability? Changes imposed by bureaucracies are often ill informed, ill considered, and poorly implemented. That's just the nature of bureaucracy. Increasingly these days, authority to make decisions is taken from teachers and local districts and given to the state and even federal government. In a school that must compete for customers, decision making will be far more likely to include teachers, the ones who know best.

New ideas and new circumstances are also good for students. Ask teachers why they chose their profession and part of their answer will be that they have a strong desire to help kids. They probably will also talk about a time when they felt pressured- if not intimidated- by bureaucratic interference into altering or abandoning a particular teaching method that they believed worked well.

When competitive pressures force schools to listen to their employees, teachers will be able to influence the changes that will inevitably occur. No longer will teachers' feedback be excluded from decisions about curricula, teaching methods, allocation of resources, and other important educational issues. Competitive schools will have to consult teachers because teachers know the answers. They are the ones who are in contact with the students and parents. They read the latest research and take the graduate courses. They share ideas and insights with each other. Schools that routinely ignore the valuable resource they have in teachers will deservedly fail, and better schools will take their places.

Finally, critics of more educational freedom for families argue that competition between schools will mean pay cuts for teachers. This concern is likewise exaggerated or unfounded. Private schools spend a greater proportion of their operating funds on teacher compensation than do public schools- 46 percent vs. 33 percent. With school choice, the money follows the student, which means that parents who can afford a couple thousand dollars per year in tuition (over and above the education taxes they pay) will suddenly be in the private school market. A lot of that new money will go to teachers, as schools compete to attract and retain the best educators they can find.

Monopolies such as the public school system can afford to ignore their employees and customers, but businesses facing stiff market competition cannot. Expanded parental choice and competition among all schools will powerfully benefit both teachers and the children they serve.