There is an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times today about education, and specifically about the teachers’ union. I’d like to do a little venting on the topic myself.

As a former member of New York’s freelance musician community, I was of course (and actually am still) a member of Local 802. This is a union constantly under pressure, fighting an uphill battle. Why? Not too many people are interested in classical music, not too many people want to pay for any kind of music. Broadway musicians threatening to strike? Fine! Use a CD instead. Even one of the ballet companies used recorded music a number of years ago during a strike. Nobody in the audience seemed to care that much. When the garbage collectors go on strike, we notice. When the musicians go out, it’s barely a blip.

I’m not arguing it should be more than a blip. I guess in my ideal world, people would be passionate about the kind of music I play, but ever since my parents suggested that music might be a tough career (11th grade, maybe? Mom and Dad, you guys were right), I have been aware that I wasn’t going to get rich playing my horn.

Which is precisely why we have a musicians’ union. You’ll notice that there isn’t a lawyers’ union, nor a stock traders’ union. The AMA is not a doctors’ union, nor the ADA one for dentists. The jobs that offer big economic rewards are never unionized.

So why do teachers have a union? Because teaching jobs barely pay. I am trying to figure out why that would be the case, and I’m having trouble (more below), but it is clear to me that teachers have unionized because their work situation is lousy. Their workday is long (students are in school for about 6 hours, and teachers always arrive early and leave late, and have to prepare at home as well), their work is exceedingly intense (ever tried to perform for 3 hours? 4? 5? 6? Two hours is pretty hard, and teachers are soloists, on the spot constantly), their audience (students) frequently doesn’t want to be there, and so on. I would need more than a summer off to be able to function for a whole school year. And finally, teaching well is really, really hard. Teaching badly is even hard, possibly harder than teaching well, since bad teachers undoubtedly can feel that things aren’t going well and they are constantly trying to kick it up.

My union practically doesn’t bother fighting for higher pay. Yes, we get little increases for gigs. The real fights, the ones that cause strikes, are the ones about how many musicians get employed at Broadway shows and the ones about health insurance. A typical show pays about $225 per performance now for a pit member, and that’s pretty good dough for work that can be repetitive and not so fulfilling. The lowest level of union supported health insurance maxes out at $5000 a year in payments for medical care. No, I did not leave out a zero. And, if a theater only has to employ 14 musicians instead of 18, that’s a huge loss to those 4 unemployed musicians per night (and multiply that down through the ranks of subs who won’t be subbing those 4 chairs). And the theater want to get rid of those 4 positions, because they save money. If the public was really against it, the union wouldn’t have to fight for it. To get to the generalized point: Local 802 (and indeed any union) fights for the things it thinks it can get, not the things it can’t get, and it fights for the things it thinks its members need even if the market isn’t going to cough those things up automatically.

What about the teachers’ union? Generally, starting wages are low, and teachers are almost never overpaid (that’s a value judgment, of course). I can only assume that battles over salaries have been losing ones for the union. So, what’s left? Security and benefits. So that’s what the union fights for. To expect otherwise would be to expect the union to say, “Well, you won’t pay us more, and I guess we’ll just agree that you can fire us whenever you want, too. And that health insurance and pension? Never mind! We’ll cover it ourselves.”

So, I leave my legion of readers with a suggestion and a question. The suggestion is that we pay our teachers a LOT more money. Let people fight for those jobs because they pay good salaries. The union will not have to fight to keep Mr. X, who bores his students and doesn’t really know his subject, in the job. If teacher salaries started at $80,000 a year, I doubt there even would be a union. Who would join? What would be the need? Added benefit: with people fighting for these jobs, we could hire only the best, and everybody would benefit, especially out kids.

That’s the suggestion. Yes, it costs money. Yes, I’m throwing money at schools. I also throw money at my doctor (I’d like a good doctor, thanks very much) and at my farmers’ market sellers (I prefer celery with taste) and at my cell phone company (I like a phone that gets a signal) and my computer company. I threw money at the person selling me my horn because I want a good one. You get what you pay for.

Which leads to the question. Why do we value teachers to the tune of $43,000 a year instead of the tune of $80,000 a year (yes, I made the numbers up)? This is a mystery to me. Everybody talks about how education should be our top priority, but then we enact property tax caps that result, down the financial chain, in cutting education. Is there a such thing as overpaying for the service of educating our children?

My cousin Bruce and I have engaged in raging debates on his blog. That’s fun. But to me this is an issue that transcends politics or ideology. Don’t people in both political parties want good education? When something is good, it’s more expensive. Go the budget route and you get a budget product. That’s not what I want for my son, and I don’t think it’s what you want for your children, either.

If anyone can clear this up, please use the comments section.

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