Politics & Policy

Where the Unemployment Isn’t

Schools need to face some pressure to rid themselves of ineffective educators.

This year, when you hear President Obama and congressional Democrats talk about increasing government spending to create jobs, you should understand that it isn’t really about jobs. It’s about paying off powerful interest groups that helped these Democrats gain power — a fact that’s clear from the billions they’ve directed to education.

Last month, President Obama held a jobs summit, after which he urged Congress to spend some of the money being repaid by bailed-out banks on programs to address unemployment. The House of Representatives responded by drafting legislation that, according to the Washington Post, “provides $23 billion to help states pay teacher salaries.” The curious thing is that education has actually seen an expansion in payrolls over the last two years, while every other major sector of the economy (save health care) has seen huge job losses.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed peaked in November 2007. Over the next two years, the private sector lost more than 7 million jobs. The construction industry lost more than 1.5 million jobs. Manufacturing lost more than 2 million jobs. The education-and-health-services category, however, added more than 900,000 jobs.

Of course, supporters of this spending might argue that were it not for federal funds, schools would have to cut jobs. The earlier stimulus package devoted almost $80 billion to education, so this new expenditure of $23 billion would simply continue the protection against job losses in a sector where we cannot afford to lose people.

The problem with this line of thinking is that we can afford to — and in fact must — lose some people from the education system. Not every one of the 6.2 million public-school employees (including 3.2 million teachers) contributes to student learning. Some even detract from it.

Few dare say this publicly for fear of alienating the clear majority of educators who diligently and expertly work to improve student achievement, but we must admit that a non-trivial segment of the public-education workplace is incompetent and needs to be re-trained or removed. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of the few public figures who are brave enough to acknowledge this fact, which he did in a speech to the National Education Association last summer: “When an ineffective teacher gets a chance to improve and doesn’t — and when the tenure system keeps that teacher in the classroom anyway — then the system is protecting jobs rather than children. That’s not a good thing. We need to work together to change that.”

The logical policy implication of this acknowledgement is that schools need to face some pressure to rid themselves of ineffective educators. But as long as money keeps flowing so that school systems don’t have to cut jobs, and can even create some, they have little incentive to go through the difficult process of identifying and eliminating bad teachers and staff. Economic downturns are harrowing, but the need to reduce payrolls forces employers to cut ineffective workers and come out of the recession leaner and stronger. By leaving schools unharmed by job losses, we are sparing them from this painful but ultimately healthy process.

Many businesses have gone way beyond healthy pruning — recall that the economy has lost more than 7 million employees. Surely there is more fat and inefficiency in the education sector, where there have been no aggregate job cuts. If the Obama administration and Congress want to save jobs, they would be better off concentrating those tax dollars on addressing unemployment in sectors where there have actually been job losses. Or, better yet, they could use those dollars to reduce taxes and national debt so that the private sector might have its own resources to start creating jobs again.

– Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, where Stuart Buck is a doctoral student.

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