Wisconsin’s experience demonstrates that, even when government union bosses’ monopoly-bargaining privileges are dramatically rolled back, they may well be able to wield their political clout over local elected officials to keep counterproductive and collectivist public policies in place. But the Badger State experience also shows that curtailing union bosses’ special privileges does make genuine and effective reform of educator compensation policies possible.
Six years ago this March, in the face of extraordinarily intense union-boss protests, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law Act 10, a sweeping government-sector labor-policy and budgetary reform.
One well-known and important Act 10 provision restored the Right to Work of most of Wisconsin’s civil servants. Since it took effect, public employees (with the unfortunate exceptions of police and firefighters and certain transportation workers) may join and pay dues to a union, or refuse to do either, without being fired as a consequence.
Another important, but far less well-known Act 10 provision barred government union bosses from using their monopoly-bargaining privileges to block public employers from offering extra compensation to employees who have rare skills or do their jobs especially well.
As a practical matter, when employers can’t offer financial incentives for outstanding performance without union officials’ permission, such incentives are hardly ever offered, because Big Labor bosses routinely favor “one-size-fits-all” compensation schedules that do not allow any consideration of how well an individual employee does his or her job.
Rigid, Big Labor-backed pay scales have a detrimental impact on the ability of all kinds of unionized institutions to serve their clients effectively and efficiently, but the impact is especially detrimental on K-12 public schools, as three education researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., recently demonstrated.
As an editorial last month for the Wisconsin State Journal explained, scholars Matthew Springer, Lam Pham and Tuan Nguyen “synthesized 44 primary studies on the impact of teacher pay incentives on student test scores.” They concluded that such incentives have a statistically significant positive impact on test scores quantifiable as “three additional weeks of learning per year in American schools (and four weeks when international studies were included).”
Springer, Pham and Nguyen do not purport to have resolved all questions about the impact of pay incentives. But they are confident the best available evidence indicates “merit pay is more likely to improve student learning than traditional [and Big Labor-favored] compensation models.” (See the link below to read the entire editorial.)
Far from all school districts in Wisconsin have taken advantage of their enhanced freedom under Act 10 to offer merit pay incentives for outstanding educators. For example, the school district governing the City of Madison, where the State Journal is published, still pays “teachers based on years of service and education level” only, despite the evidence that this system typically results in sub-par outcomes for students.
But more and more school officials across the Badger State are standing up to the teacher union hierarchy and revamping their pay systems. And “many teachers have welcomed the opportunity to earn more money for their hard work and success.” By 2016, nearly 40% of school districts in Wisconsin were offering “some kind of performance-based pay . . . .”
Over time, more and more schoolchildren, parents, taxpayers, and hardworking and talented teachers are reaping the benefits of Act 10. The news from Wisconsin should encourage other states to emulate this reform, or, better yet, prohibit completely union monopoly bargaining in the government sector.