The unions like choice and privatization except when they don’t.

A recent story out of Michigan illustrates the two-faced nature of teachers unions on the subject of privatization. Seems that the Michigan Education Association (MEA), state affiliate of the National Education Association, paid private, non-unionized companies between $5,500 and $86,112 – totaling over $155,000 – for janitorial services in 2012-2013.

The union had no comment on its cost-saving measures, as reported by Michigan Confidential, a news service for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank in the Wolverine State. In fact, according to the MEA website, the union remains unequivocally against privatization when it comes to the hiring of private contractors by school districts.

The appeal of privatization is based on the flawed economic assumption that private companies can provide the same services as public school employers at lower costs. Theoretically, a good contract with a private firm could provide the same services with the same quality, responsiveness and accountability as an in-house operation. The problem is that to achieve this, a private contractor is very likely to charge more than it costs to provide the service in-house. Private contractors need to earn profits, finance corporate overhead and pay taxes. These factors drive the cost of the contract up and/or the quality and quantity of the service down. Time after time, districts that try to save money by hiring private contractors end up with inferior service, higher costs or both. 

Their hypocrisy blazing, the MEA went so far as to sponsor a Statewide Anti-Privatization Committee. And at its most recent annual conference, the union held several sessions on fighting privatization. Participants learned how to “recognize the threat of privatization,  fight privatization battles, defend members’ careers, and  take steps to protect your own local.”

One thing that was most definitely not included in the anti-privatization sessions was a report issued by Mackinac in January which found that when districts privatize they save money, improve services and pay their teachers more.

… 43 school districts reported that they have privatized food, custodial and transportation services. Far more districts (186) reported they do not privatize any of these services. And 65.5 percent of districts reported that they outsourced at least one service.

An examination of salary levels in these districts reveals that in the districts that privatize all three services the average teacher salary was approximately $60,000, while the average teacher salary in the 186 that don’t privatize those services was approximately $56,000. (Emphasis added.)

The most damaging area of privatization for organized labor is education, because the unions lose serious money when teachers take jobs in non-unionized, non-public schools. And no union “privatization committee” is going to broadcast the financial facts here either. While Michigan spends over $10,600 per year on each public school student, it costs the state’s private schools only $6,468 on average to educate the same child.

Nationally, the numbers are just as striking. Across the country the average annual cost per public school pupil is $15,171. But private schools only spend $9,242 per student.

What about quality? Where parents have a choice and send their children to a private school, the results are unambiguous and just as striking. In A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, Friedman Foundation senior fellow Greg Forster looked at 12 empirical studies that “examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the ‘gold standard’ of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.” And of course, at the same time, the taxpayers are shelling out fewer education dollars.

Maybe Henry Mabry, president of the Alabama Education Association, has been reading the Friedman Foundation report. His two children attend the (private) Holy Cross Episcopal School in Montgomery. But at the very same time, Mabry’s AEA filed a politically-driven lawsuit, alleging that Alabama’s new educational choice program – which especially benefits low-income kids stuck in failing schools – is unconstitutional. Sadly, Montgomery County circuit court Judge Eugene Reese decided in favor of the union. An appeal is imminent, however.

Mabry, like his union brothers in Michigan, has decided what’s good for the goose is bad for the gander. Shame on the whole gaggle of hypocrites.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

(A slightly different version of this post appeared in Saturday’s CA Political Review.)

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