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The public-sector workers on which our future depends

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I get that public-sector workers are on both sides of the table, and that there's something suspect and rigged when pols lifted into office by these unions return the favor with generous health and pension benefits that break the bank. I also get that this conspiracy to roll taxpayers is equally at work when pols backed by business reward supporters with tax breaks and subsidies worth many times the political contributions received.

I know that Republicans want to use today's fiscal strain to bust public-sector unions and kneecap the Democrats' biggest funders, and that budgets are being balanced partly on the backs of public workers that didn't cause the financial meltdown that blew a hole in these budgets in the first place. This, while Wall Street bankers and assorted billionaires pay taxes at marginal rates that could easily be higher without affecting productive economic activity at all.

I also know that public-union work rules often create crazy inefficiencies that help account for why the United States spends more for less in education and health care than other advanced nations. But I also see that the savings Scott Walker seeks from Wisconsin's unions amount to only 10 percent of the state's budget gap. I also think the Democratic Party has a serious problem when an outsize portion of its political clout comes from organizations that are largely detached from private enterprise and wealth creation.

In other words, my holistic understanding of the arguments on all sides is capacious and complete. I say this not to boast but to show that I come by my confusion honestly. I'll admit that in weighing these points I'm not sure where I come down on the question of who should "win." I don't think the sky will fall if public unions lose some of their current power and benefits, and I don't think stripping them of some current powers and benefits will do anything to address America's biggest challenges.

The one thing I know for sure, however, is this: The future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers. That's because unless we dramatically improve our educational performance, America's standard of living will be at risk.

The second thing I know for sure is that we'll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays far more than it does today. With starting teacher salaries averaging $39,000 nationally, and rising to an average maximum of $67,000, it's no surprise that we draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class; for schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third. We're the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a "strategy" of recruiting mediocre students and praying they'll prove excellent teachers.

And I know one more thing - which is as inconvenient for me to acknowledge as it should be for others who've criticized archaic teacher union practices in the United States. The highest-performing school systems in the world - in places such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea - all have strong teachers unions. Anyone serious about improving American schooling has to reckon with this paradox: Unions here are often obstacles to needed reform, even as the world's best systems work hand in glove with their unions to continually improve their performance.

Why this difference?

The main reason, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, who has studied these questions, is that the entire public policy culture (and thus resource allocation) in these high-performing nations is built around attracting, rigorously training and retaining top talent for teaching. "The dynamic in the top-performing nations is about supporting good teachers, not about getting bad teachers out," she says, because there just aren't many bad teachers.

"The union role is problematic at this point," in the United States, Darling-Hammond adds, "but it's a creature of what we've constructed" by not being serious about luring top talent into teaching and preparing that talent to succeed.

Whatever happens in Wisconsin, we need a national strategy to make teaching the career of choice for talented young people. This conversation simply doesn't exist today.

As research by Eric Hanushek has shown, Wisconsin's math scores put its students behind not only Korea, Finland and Taiwan, but behind Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania as well. They still outpace students in Latvia and Bulgaria, if that's any comfort.

Remember, Scott Walker, the only people who can change this for Wisconsin's children will be public-sector workers. Whatever you do to fix the budget, you better fix this, too.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.


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