Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker forced states nationwide to consider the cost of union control of their public sector workforces. The outrage from Wisconsin public employees over a modest increase in benefit contributions mocks private sector workers, who pick up the tab for generous public pension and health care benefits while pondering the fate of their own recession-damaged 401(k)s.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott also tried to increase contributions, and learned that giving something for nothing does not engender good will. His proposal that public employees contribute five percent, instead of nothing, towards their pensions met with animosity despite the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.
The president has made education spending a priority from the moment he entered the White House. In support of higher teacher salaries Mr. Obama employs the same argument used by Wall Street executives to justify outrageous bonuses, maintaining that higher compensation is necessary to keep good teachers in the classroom (see: Public Employees Become Our Newest Sacred Cows).
If student performance is any indication, perhaps we should consider paying teachers less. Federal “Nation’s Report Card” figures show that private school students in grades 4, 8, and 12 performed above public school students in reading, science, math, and writing.  Despite better performance, private school teachers are paid substantially less than their public sector counterparts. The average salary for public school teachers was $49,630 in 2007 – 2008, but private school teachers averaged only $36,250. 
Many Wisconsin public schools were shut down for days in response to Walker’s challenge to union hegemony. This underscores the importance of ending the ease with which unions can halt public services. While unions may agree to benefit contribution increases, and even pay cuts in the short term to salvage collective bargaining, taxpayers will be punished for these concessions later. Wise state legislatures will take advantage of the groundswell of support to reform public sector employment by putting an end to union dominance now.
The president is pushing for a massive education initiative. This is a difficult expense to justify, given his support for unions that drive up the cost of public employment, and evidence that the salaries demanded by unions do not translate into better classroom performance. Perhaps we should tie federal aid to state elimination of collective bargaining, and index public school teacher salaries to compensation in private schools. By replacing union clout with the private sector’s insistence on performance as a condition of employment, taxpayers might see a better return for their education dollar.
1..National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Nation’s Report Card. Student Achievement in Private Schools. Results From NAEP 2000-2005. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences. December 2005. p. 1.
2..National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics. Average salaries for full-time teachers in public and private elementary and secondary schools, by selected characteristics 2007-2008. http://nces.ed.gov.