More Than Strikes, Teachers Need School Choice Programs

February 20, 2019

Record numbers of frustrated teachers are taking to the picket lines. In 2018 alone, teachers struck 24 times, up from two to 12 strikes per year in 2010-2017. Strikes have largely targeted teacher wages and working conditions. But strikes are not getting teachers what they want. School choice programs can help.

By some measures, teacher compensation is consistent with similarly educated professionals. However, by other measures, teacher salaries remain painfully low. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. teachers make only 55-58% of the salaries of comparably educated professionals.

Second to salary discussions, but still motivating many teachers is the frustratingly little authority they possess in the classroom. The 2018 Educators for Excellence survey found that nearly 20% of teachers felt that greater teacher autonomy in the classroom would improve teacher retention, nearly a 25% of teachers felt that more support from administrators would improve retention.

“The data consistently show us that a big issue is how much voice, how much say, do teachers have collectively in the school-wide decisions that affect their jobs?” said Dr. Richard M. Ingersoll, Professor of Education and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He concludes:

Are teachers treated as professionals? That’s a huge issue. Coupled with that is giving individual teachers discretion and autonomy in their own classroom. Teachers are micromanaged. They have been saying for a long time that one size doesn’t fit all, all students are different. But they’re told to stick to the scripted curriculum, which might work for a weaker teacher but it drives good teachers nuts…

Public schools have little motivation to increase salaries or give teachers a voice in classrooms. As it stands, public schools hold 90% of the education market share. That means public schools can offer meager salaries and frustratingly poor work conditions, but teachers will continue to work for them because they have next to no alternatives.

Introducing school choice programs including charter schools, voucher programs, and Education Savings Accounts would help to expand teaching options.

Charter schools are not run by school districts or boards of education and can, therefore, provide alternative education models and specialized learning opportunities attractive to both students and teachers.

Voucher programs expand access to private schools by allowing parents to use public funds to help cover tuition. And Education Savings Accounts allow parents to use public funds to cover educational expenses such as teaching programs for children struggling with a disability, homeschooling materials, or community college classes.

With more programs competing for teachers and students, public schools are forced to offer more attractive compensation packages and working environments.

Indeed, of the five studies examining the relationship between the labor market and school choice, all have found that increases in school choice resulted in increased teacher salaries. One such study from the Journal of Public Economics, for example, found that charter school competition increased salaries by about 3.4% for teachers in nearby hard-to-staff North Carolina schools.

Interestingly, countries with school-choice-friendly policies also experience smaller gaps between teacher salaries and those of other comparably educated professionals.

In Belgium and the Netherlands for example, school choice is a constitutional right. In these countries, teachers are making 94-100% and 78-92% of what comparably educated professionals make, respectively.

Similarly, Sweden offers a form of school choice that covers the cost of education wherever a parent chooses to send their children, and Germany provides public funds for children who wish to attend religious schools. Swedish teachers are making 83-88% of what comparably educated professionals make and German teachers are making 83-97%.

If the United States truly wishes to help teachers, we should be learning from neighbors within our borders and beyond them, and encourage the growth of school choice programs.

In addition to helping to increase teacher paychecks, school choice programs give teachers a voice in their classrooms.

Across the nation, teachers have also reported that they are better supported by administration in private and charter schools, and are more satisfied overall in private or charter schools. Florida charter school teachers reported that this satisfaction comes largely because of the freedom they experience in the workplace.

Teachers recognize the value school choice programs offer. According to a 2018 survey by the national education reform organization EdChoice, 54% of teachers favor school vouchers, 57% of teachers favor charter schools, and a massive 78% of public school teachers support Education Savings Accounts.

Teachers should be fairly compensated and enjoy a healthy workplace. But striking alone is not getting these education leaders what they need. More school choice programs will.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman