Fewer strikes, more reform (Oct. 22 editorial)

There's no substitute for competition in producing greater efficiency along with higher quality.

October 21, 2007 20:53
3 minute read.
Fewer strikes, more reform (Oct. 22 editorial)

Cute school kid 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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As yet another reminder of the weakness and unpopularity of our current government, the senior university lecturers have gone on strike. Why not attempt to hop on to the bandwagon of the general bemoaning of the quality of our educational system, the disturbing evidence of a "brain-drain" from our universities, and the ongoing high school teachers strike? We are extremely sympathetic to the plight of teachers and share the concern over the woes of our schools. But perhaps most disturbing of all is that tens of thousands of high school students are missing day after day of school, and no one seems to care. Things would be much simpler if we had some confidence that, simply by filling the demands of striking teachers, the system would be fixed. But even if salaries were raised, would our children get a better education? Would there even be fewer strikes? Strikes are part of the problem, not the solution. As if it were not enough that classes are too large, that the best teachers and principals are not rewarded, that there is almost no competition between schools - now these strikes directly deprive students even of the basic educational good of an uninterrupted school year. The answer is more reform and fewer strikes. One good idea that remains no less valid even though it has been proposed unsuccessfully for many years is requiring unions to enter into a mediation process, or even into a binding arbitration arrangement. The agreements that emerge from such an arbitration process may not be ideal, but neither are those that follow crippling strikes. A system that does a reasonable job of reconciling the different sides and spares the public the high cost of strikes would be a great improvement over the status quo. Since 1960 various Knesset members have been introducing private compulsory arbitration bills in the Knesset. The Likud pledged in its 1976 election platform to pursue legislation requiring binding arbitration of labor disputes. In South Korea, the law prohibits strikes affecting essential public services unless mediation or arbitration has been attempted first. In Norway, a nurses strike was ended when the parliament passed a law requiring such binding arbitration. Another sensible measure is to require that unions hold a secret vote among their members before the union leaders call a strike. The members may very well agree with their leadership in many instances, but such a measure would avoid the situation of a union leaderships "proving themselves" through strikes, even when they are opposed by a majority of union members. These are important stopgap measures that should be instituted immediately, before more fundamental reforms are pursued. Just as strikes will not solve underlying problems, neither will their elimination by way of procedural and legal changes. It is no coincidence that essentially all nationwide strikes are of government workers or in government-dominated industries and enterprises. This is both because conditions in government service are poor compared to the private sector and because the government is protected from competitive pressures. Privatization is no panacea, since monopolies and overconcentration in particular markets can produce similar effects. Competition, moreover, can be introduced even under a government regulatory umbrella. But there is no substitute for competition in producing greater efficiency along with higher quality for consumers, more opportunities and better conditions for workers. Few sectors of our society are more concentrated in government hands and more centralized than the educational system. Study after study has shown that great schools are run by great principals, and that principals need the authority to hire and fire and to reward merit. Principals, by the same token, need to know that parents have a choice of where to send their children, and that merit - or lack of it - will have effects at their level, too. Teachers unions that resist such reforms are hurting their members because the only hope for raising the status and conditions of the teaching profession is to raise the quality of the educational system. More importantly, it is the only hope to produce schools that better educate our children. Isn't that what all of this is supposed to be about?

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