Shanker's Sore

"The point of choice is to provide parents and students with what they want," says Alan Reynolds ("Al in Wonderland," June). That may be the point of choice, and it may be the point of shopping malls. But it is not the point of education, and it is certainly not the reason the public—parents and nonparents alike—pays taxes to support education. We do so not to satisfy the individual wants of parents and students but because of the public interest in producing an educated citizenry capable of exercising the rights of liberty and being productive members of society.

That is why, a long, long time ago, an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives, workingmen's groups, and employers rejected a market system of education in favor of a common-school system. That is why education is a public and not an individual responsibility. That is why there are compulsory education laws. That is why the public, and not just parents, has a right to exercise control over how education taxes are spent.

And that is why I oppose allowing public dollars to follow youngsters to private schools that are outside the reach of public scrutiny and authority. Given the lousy performance of both public- and private-school students, I also find it amazing that anyone would favor a system that creates incentives for schools to work on attracting customers rather than on improving achievement, or doing so only incidentally.

My alternative to trying a market system of education is national standards. That's national, not federal, which I oppose. The fact is, what all of the nations whose students outperform ours have and we lack are standards for what students should know and be able to do, exams that are based on those standards, student accountability for meeting standards, and teacher education systems that can prepare teachers to teach because they know what teachers are supposed to teach.

Some of these nations have very specific curriculum requirements, while others establish curriculum frameworks that leave room for diversity, which is the route we should go here. But none of our competitors relies on competition and "choice" in their education systems. Even the few nations that offer public aid to private schools require them to adhere to the national or regional curriculum and examination system. And in none of these nations will you find the gross disparities in funding among public schools or between public and private schools we have here.

Reason would dictate that we learn some lessons from nations whose education systems work rather than gambling on a so-called choice system that may or may not work. Strike "may work."

Albert Shanker
American Federation of Teachers
Washington, DC

Mr. Reynolds replies: Mr. Shanker writes that tax-financed vouchers must not be used to finance "private schools that are outside…public scrutiny." If that were his real objection, then he would be willing to endorse the use of vouchers for private schools, provided they met the same standards as public schools. So far as I know, Mr. Shanker is opposed to vouchers for private schools under any circumstances.

I have no objection to setting basic education goals and testing to see how well schools and individual teachers attain those goals, though I would like to see this done by state, local, and private institutions to encourage innovation and variety. Such information would be helpful to parents in selecting schools.

Where Mr. Shanker and I differ is on who gets to decide where our children go to school and what subjects they will be taught. I view increasing diversity and choice as a major objective, which is why I wish to maximize the authority of school principals, maximize competitive pressure on individual schools, and minimize federal involvement. Mr. Shanker wants to see all children marching to the same drummer. He hopes to eliminate unpleasant rivalry between schools by cutting down any tall poppies among them to match some national norm.

Mr. Shanker really believes that education is "not an individual responsibility" and should be as compulsory as possible. He clearly admires "very specific curriculum requirements" but would reluctantly leave some "room for diversity." Most importantly, he continues to denigrate "just parents" in favor of "the public." Yet this "public" can only be a euphemism for government officials of one sort or another. It might mean local school boards, except that Mr. Shanker has been quite critical of local control. "Public scrutiny" thus appears to mean the U.S. Department of Education. But Mr. Shanker now says he merely wants "national, not federal," standards, which leaves unclear who, if not the government, will design and enforce these standards.

In Mr. Shanker's view, neither parents nor students have any legitimate role in making educational choices. Decisions about which students attend which schools, what they are to be taught, how, and by whom are best left to experts and imposed throughout the nation. Those who are "just parents" should shut up, pay their taxes, and leave the driving to us.

Union Gray

Virginia Postrel suggests that unions can (and should?) survive only if they take themselves out of the collective-bargaining business and put themselves into the "training business" instead ("Unions Forever?", June). That is nonsense. Insofar as union leaderships listen to libertarians at all, we should advise them to stick with their original, and market-rational, function. That function is, precisely, collective bargaining.

There is nothing about labor markets that requires a free-for-all, with every worker selling his or her individual skills and time in isolation. Just as individual investors can go into the labor market as purchasers, not singly but combined into partnerships or corporations, so workers can combine into guilds or unions when they go into the same market as vendors.

Christopher C. Faille
Enfield, CT

Federal labor law ensures that labor unions are nonmarket institutions, with little reason to concern themselves with the satisfaction of their customers. Workers do not contract with unions for the rendering of specific services for a price over a set time period. Rather, a union is certified as the exclusive bargaining representative for all workers in a bargaining unit, provided that a majority votes for representation by that union.

Unlike ordinary contracts, this government certification lasts indefinitely. There are no periodic re-elections; the only way an incumbent union can be ousted is if it loses a decertification election, and procedural hurdles make decertification elections fairly rare. The upshot is that unions, once in place, have a virtually captive market and little threat of competition. Naturally, the union leaders take advantage of their position.

I do not think unions will become truly dedicated to serving the needs of workers until federal law is changed to permit a market for worker representation services. Get rid of exclusive representation and government certification. Allow individuals to contract with any union they want for whatever services they are willing to pay for. Having to operate in a market setting is absolutely the last thing that labor leaders want, but it would be a tremendous benefit for workers.

George C. Leef
Lansing, MI

When considering any question involving modern unionism in America, it is essential to consider the differences between the private and public sectors. For example, Virginia Postrel mentions that union penetration in the work force declined from 35.5 percent in 1945 to 16.1 percent in 1990. The important consideration is that, from 1958 to 1991, it declined from a high of 39.3 percent to 11.9 percent in the private sector, while it increased from 12.7 percent to 36.9 percent in the public sector.

Unionism, in its purely economic sense, is a cartel of labor. Such cartels are usually defeated by free markets. It should be no wonder that unionism in the private sector has declined.

Deregulation of trucking and the airlines had a profound impact on the transportation unions. The relationship was no longer that of a labor cartel dealing with a government-sponsored cartel of service providers. Contracting out government services to the private sector can and will have an equally profound effect on the public-sector unions.

David Y. Denholm
Public Service Research Council
Reston, VA

Ms. Postrel replies: That Mr. Faille has so grossly misunderstood my article is some indication of how stylized the discussion of unions in America has become. Far from arguing against collective bargaining, I was seeking to think seriously about what collective bargaining would look like if unions could freely use their power to strike but employers could freely hire other workers. As I said in the article, few employers want, or can sustain, instantaneous 100-percent turnover, making the strike a powerful bargaining tool under any circumstances. But unions whose members are especially skilled or especially mobile are in a better bargaining position than unions who offer no value added to members—hence the argument that it is in the interest of unions to provide training, nationwide "hiring halls," etc.

Mr. Leef raises an interesting point about indefinite certification. He ignores, however, the significant efficiencies of single-union bargaining not only for workers but also for management. Over the long term, it is unlikely that workers doing the same job in the same firm would wind up belonging to different unions.

Mr. Denholm's statistics reinforce my point that unions have pursued a strategy that emphasizes organizing monopoly government shops rather than offering added value to workers and thereby increasing their bargaining power. Instead of acting as cartels, however, such value-added unions would survive in the private sector the same way brand-name products do—by avoiding profitless "pure competition" through differentiation that commands higher prices.