Um, What's the Opposite of "More"?

Detroit Public School Teachers Meet Economic Reality

One can’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for Detroit public school teachers as they contemplate a contract in which they will be effectively loaning the DPS up to $10,000 apiece next year in the form of $500 monthly reductions in their pay. The plan is for the district to use these funds to pay off $219 million in debts. Hopefully the funds will be repaid (without interest) once the financial crisis subsides.

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Those are pretty drastic measures, and a lot of teachers have to feel a bit blindsided. For years, decades even, the union officials who negotiated this deal have effectively said to the rank-and-file: “We promise you more, more, more. You deserve more, more, more. The district can afford to pay you more, more, more. More raises, more benefits, more job protections. More more more.” And they delivered on that promise; according to the state Department of Education, the average teacher salary was around $9,000 higher in Detroit than in the rest of the state. The militancy of the Detroit Federation of Teachers was a key factor in limiting the expansion of charter schools in the city, which cut off competition in education and made jobs more secure.

Teachers in Detroit did quite well relying on the union’s protection and counsel, for a while. But now the district has hit an economic wall, and those same union leaders have to go to those same teachers and say, “Uh, folks, this time you’re going to have to settle for, well – um, what’s the opposite of ‘more’?”

A union cannot break the laws of economics – bend them a little maybe, but not break them. Over the long haul, a service is worth what people are willing to pay for it, and that goes even when government is providing the service. Detroiters were remarkably patient with their public school system, but eventually they reached a point where they were not willing to pay more, more, more for poorly run, poorly maintained schools that provided a poor education. The failure of DPS contributed to an exodus of families from the city, which now is home to less than half the population it had at its peak.

When union officials ignore the realities of economics, of an imploding economy, of a nearly nonexistent tax base, and of a public that has lost confidence in the school district itself, and they push for more generous benefits and less accountability for results from their own members, eventually the system will break down. The longer the inevitable crash is delayed, the uglier it will be when it arrives.

That crash was delayed a long time in Detroit, in large part because the district failed to even keep track of its own accounts. But now it has arrived, and DPS teachers will need to make do with less, probably a lot less. One might think they were grossly overcompensated and overprotected to begin with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a legitimate beef with union officials who promised them “more, more, more” without bothering to ask where it would come from.