Indiana State Senator Pete Miller is not the first guy to have this idea, but he's the one currently floating it in a state legislature-- let's do away with collective bargaining and let every teacher negotiate her own individual contract.
This is Miller's idea for fixing the teacher shortage. Let's treat teachers fairly, he says. But only when a shortage forces us to, and only some of the teachers. After all, why should I have to pay big bucks for both a first grade teacher and a science teacher when the former are a dime a dozen and the latter are so hard to come by?
I've thought about the solo negotiating approach before, because it seems like an interesting thought experiment. What would schools look like if each contract was individually negotiated?
They would probably look poorer, because at least the larger districts would hire professional negotiators to handle the workload. There are over 2,500 teachers in the Indianapolis district-- exactly who is going to negotiate 2,500 contracts? It's going to be somebody who doesn't have any other job and who was hired just to handle negotiations, which means administration just got bigger.
Or they would look more...well, awkward. In a smaller district, individual contracts would be negotiated by the same people who work as supervisors. I'm trying to imagine the dynamic of, "Yes, I told you last month that you couldn't have another $500 of pay, and now this month I am asking you to take on another extra duty."
And such a system would be sure to breed some intra-staff resentment, as people come to realize they are being paid far less for the same job as the guy next door. "What do you mean you want to borrow my worksheets about subjects and verbs?! Take your extra couple thousand dollars and go buy your own worksheets." And-- as everyone who's served on the front lines of contract negotiations well knows-- it is very easy for negotiations to breed an adversarial relationship. Does it really help a district for teachers to know that one of their supervisor's job is to make sure they never make too much money?
Of course, the current system also results in people being paid different amounts for the same job, but-- and here we get into the weirdities of the human brain-- nobody gets paid "less" than anybody else. Some people just get paid "more." Everyone starts at the same place, and everybody has the same opportunity to move up the ladder. And while I can agree that it's not ideal, I believe that it helps foster the collegiality needed in a school. When you set teachers against each other and make them compete for every dollar, nobody wins.
And they would have to compete, because school funding is a zero sum game. The district has as much money as it has, so if it is going to cough up an extra $10K to hire Rockstar McSuperteach for the science department, somewhere in the system, $10K is going to be cut. "Sorry, you can't have new literature books this year because we wanted to hire a math teacher," is not going to foster collegiality.
Worse, the competition would not even be about who was the best teacher, but who was the best negotiator. Negotiating is a skill. It's a profession. And the balance will always be against teachers, because each teacher will have practice negotiating one contract-- her own-- while the district will have a pro who has handled all the contracts. And really-- is it fair that the same sweet, kind demeanor that makes Quietina O'Introversion such a great first grade teacher will guarantee her a crappy contract negotiation year after year?
In fact, here's what I really imagine happening. Teachers, lacking the time or expertise to handle their own negotiations, will hire someone to do it for them. In fact, they'll probably pool resources so that they can get somebody a little better to negotiate for the whole pool. Kind of like a union.
Meanwhile, districts will get tired of negotiating multiple versions of the contract (and there will be multiple versions-- if I go in there you'd better bet I will also be negotiating for leave time, office space, what duties I will or won't be assigned, etc) as well as managing a host of employees who all have different conditions for their employment. Plus such negotiations would make budgeting too murky and problematic. So districts will develop a menu of contract offerings, a sort of ladder that teachers are placed on
Of course, some districts would just say, "Screw it. We're paying bottom dollar and we'll take whatever is lying around the bottom of the barrel." Just like now.
Miller's idea is that he wants the invisible hand of the market to control teacher pay, but Indiana, like most states with so-called teacher shortages, already has the invisible hand of the market shoved right in their face-- they have a shortage because they are ignoring what the hand is telling them, which is "Make a better offer!" Miller is involved in some negotiating of his own, telling the invisible hand, "Well, what if we just a make a better offer for only a few of them? What's the absolute minimum the market will let us get away with?"
Indiana has some other interesting ideas coming up, like a proposal to trade a free college education for five years of teaching service in the state. But Miller's proposal is a lousy idea that won't really work out well for anybody.