Unions Force Milwaukee Public Schools to Return Grant Money

By Josiah Cantrall
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

If you consistently outperform your co-workers, isn’t it fair to expect some form of compensation or acknowledgement? When your employer recognizes your work ethic and success, it means something – even if it’s just an “employee of the month” award or a twenty-five cent raise.

Performance based bonuses are not something new, they are actually the norm in nearly every industry excluding one– public education. Recently the Milwaukee Public School system was awarded a $10 million federal grant to be used over a five year period. It would have allowed the district to experiment with a performance based compensation model free of charge. Because of opposition from the teachers union, however, the district was forced to return the money and cancel the program. Under the grant’s terms, the money could not be used without their approval. When is the last time any teacher or school district actually turned down free money??

In the aftermath of Act 10, it would seem logical for teachers to support any attempts to increase their pay. After all, just this summer Governor Walker was accused of declaring war on teachers because of reductions in their salaries and benefits. Now that their take home pay has been reduced, teachers, especially the good ones, deserve hard earned bonuses. Right?

No. Not according to the educational unions.

Let’s simply cede the argument and call the idea controversial. What harm can come from a five year trial period of a performance based pay system that doesn’t cost local taxpayers a single penny? Absolutely nothing.

Performance based pay models typically use value added systems to determine the level of an educator’s success. They calculate student achievement from year to year and use statistics to predict what a student’s test scores should be based on past scores and other factors outside of the teacher’s or school’s control. Ultimately, the student’s growth is measured over a set period of time and value-added systems attempt to show what portion of this growth can be traced back to individual educators or schools. According to the Department of Public Instruction, Milwaukee was seeking to use such a value-added system which allows schools and teachers to, “see how well they are teaching, rather than how advantaged or disadvantaged their students were at the beginning of the school year.”

This shouldn’t be an innovative concept. Every other industry rewards employees for success, and there is no reason education should be any different. We can’t afford to restrict our children to old fashioned, narrow minded methods. If a talented teacher inspires a child and impacts their educational development in a profound way, almost everyone agrees that teacher should be recognized. Performance incentives are critical to any employee compensation program. If they didn’t mean anything, than why does MPS award annual “Teacher of the Year” honors?

Simply put, Teachers’ Unions don’t care. They oppose performance based compensation models because they don’t want parents to be able to distinguish between good and bad teachers. They would rather reward teachers based on years of experience and education level, than on merit and individual success. Once again, we are seeing where the teachers’ unions heart really is. They aren’t seriously interested in lifting up and supporting successful teachers. They would rather sit comfortable, retain their security, and not worry about potentially underperforming union members.

Performance based compensation models challenge this mindset. It’s not simply about distinguishing between good and bad teachers, it’s about attracting talented educators, rewarding those who are doing an excellent job, and identifying those who need additional support and resources.

If teachers unions really cared about students, they would be interested in such changes. Not only should they allow changes, they should strongly support the state’s worst school district’s desire to experiment with new methods free of charge. Potentially, teachers’ salaries would increase, weak links would be identified, and hopefully our children would be given a chance to receive a high quality education.

But the Milwaukee Teachers Union isn’t interested. Instead, they are adamantly standing in the way of progress and consequently our children are left with a dimmer prospect for a brighter future.