Teachers and School Choice

The debate over school choice usually centers around improved education for children, and rightly so. But how will school choice affect those who sit on the other side of the desk—the teachers?

Basic economics mirrors basic human nature. If the cost of a desired product is reduced, demand for it will increase. For example, if tuition tax credits make it less costly for parents to choose their children’s schools, the resulting lower cost of choosing a nonpublic school would likely increase the demand for nonpublic schools as more parents choose options outside the traditional public system. Would this threaten the wages of public school teachers?

Public school teachers in general do receive higher salaries than their nonpublic counterparts. This is due to the fact that nonpublic schools are forced to compete on an unequal footing with public schools because of the financial limitations placed on consumers: Most middle- and low-income families are unable to afford nonpublic education on top of the taxes they have to pay for the public system.

Anti-choice theorists claim that full school choice would cause teachers’ wages in general to suffer. It is more likely that the freer, less regulated schools invigorated by choice would direct more dollars to teacher paychecks and fewer to bureaucracy. Why? Nonpublic schools are already freer and less regulated than public schools, and 46 cents of every nonpublic school dollar goes toward teacher salaries. In public schools, teachers get only 33 cents on the dollar.

Opening education to choice and competition means that schools—public and nonpublic—would directly compete with each other to attract and retain good teachers. Administrators would either have to provide appropriate financial rewards to teachers who excel in the classroom or risk losing them to a competing school. Better schools through competition would probably increase the willingness of citizens to pay more for what they get in education. The best teachers almost certainly would be paid more than they are today.

Teacher compensation is higher in public schools than in nonpublic ones, but that has not translated into increased job satisfaction. A U. S. Department of Education report found that over 36 percent of nonpublic school teachers said they were "highly satisfied" with their jobs while only 11 percent of public school teachers made the same claim.

A forthcoming study from the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute confirms this finding. Hudson surveyed 920 school teachers at 83 nonpublic schools and discovered the following:

  • Higher salaries fail to lure away nonpublic school teachers. About 80 percent of the teachers surveyed said they would not switch to a public school for pay raises ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $16,000 per year. Of those who would leave, two-thirds of them were young teachers who were initially unable to find jobs in the public system.

  • Veteran nonpublic school teachers are less likely to go to public schools. Fewer than 10 percent of the nonpublic school veterans said they would accept a much-higher-paying job at a "good" suburban public school. Only two percent of nonpublic school teachers would be willing to leave their current job for a more highly paid job in an urban public school, despite the fact that half of the schools surveyed were already located in an urban setting.

  • Nonpublic school teachers prefer their schools to public schools. Teachers in nonpublic schools commonly cite a free and flexible workplace, student discipline, collegial atmosphere, and parental involvement as reasons for teaching in the nonpublic system—characteristics they see as lacking in traditional public school work environments. We could grant public school teachers some of those advantages too, by freeing up the public system from some of the burdensome rules under which it labors.

If Michigan were to embrace full school choice, the thriving professional work environment in nonpublic education would likely extend to all schools as competition encourages improvement. Opportunities for salaries that are commensurate with performance in the classroom would expand rather than contract. And in a system of genuine choice, public school teachers would gain the satisfaction that comes from pleasing their customers—satisfaction that often eludes them in a system that treats parents as captives.

Good teachers know that schools are more than just places to pick up a paycheck. And fortunately, they don’t have to be concerned that their dedication will go unrewarded if parents have more freedom to choose where they send their children to school.