Work Place Liberty in the Context of Education

2012-07-09

How can we tell if principal directives are fair to teachers?

There has been a great conversation circling some blogs I read over the last week about liberty in the work place.1 Issues of fairness in the work place are a constant in today’s education conversation. Whether some view it as a form of metaphoric violence on teachers and their profession, while others see a concerted effort to change rigid, bureaucratic systems that prevent effective change2, at the heart of education reform du jour are changes to workplace freedom. Improving human capital systems has meant dismantling questionable licensing requirements3, dramatic changes in teacher evaluation, and other dramatic changes to who gets hired or fired. Using extended learning time, either through additional instructional days and/or longer school days, to increase student achievement is often considered too costly, because teachers demand more pay for more work. Additional professional development days are similarly costly; teachers are loath to give up additional days in the summer or during school vacations without receiving additional pay. I could go on.

All of these reforms seek to radically change terms and benefits in teacher contracts and state law that represent a string of hard-fought (and won) battles that teachers and their unions pursued for years. The political left, and more specifically the progressive movement, has generally picked up on these attempts as anti-union, anti-collective bargaining, anti-democratic, anti-teacher, and anti-education. There are even a host of conspiracy theories decrying the “corporate reformers” who are coming into the education realm to break down good, public, democratic systems that are good for Democrats, largely to hurt poor kids and make profits4.

Fundamentally, most of this argument is about what individuals ideologies have led them to believe about employee rights and employer rights. I find it increasingly frustrating that these conversations do not address the deeper philosophical differences. This is why I have really enjoyed observing the current conversation between Crooked Timber, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and others.

One of the key aspects of the BRG argument5is that worker contracts are unique because many of the terms of employment are ambiguous. Employers should only be permitted to demand that employees partake in activities to which they have consented. The contract is supposedly a signal of this consent, however, because the terms are so often ambiguous, disputes over whether or not it covers an activity are practically a guarantee. So how should these disputes be settled and by whom? BRG would argue that there should be strong worker freedom to make sure that their consent is truly given. They consider the relationship between employer and employee to be naturally coercive, at least in part because they assume the right to end employment has very asymmetric benefits since employees have, presumably, much more to lose than employers when the contract ends. BRG assumes that freedom is best served through a democratic workplace with very powerful employees who have few, if any of their rights restricted in the workplace. On the other hand, BHLers believe that it is possible to consent to restrict ones rights within a contractual relationship, they do not tend to accept that the right to exit affords highly asymmetric freedoms6, and they feel that freedom is maximized by abstaining from limiting private contracts while maximizing the rights to freely enter and exit contracts.

However, it is macroeconomist Miles Kimball, a recent entrant into the blogosphere, whose comments I felt could most directly be applied to education. If I were to summarize his post, it would be:

  1. There are significant pressures against to eliminating freedoms of your workers that end up making them worse at their jobs or lead to attracting bad talent.
  2. Although these pressures exist for “The Firm”, it is true that “underbosses” with significant power can act in ways that maximize their personal gain instead of what’s good for “The Firm” and the pressures are less strong against eliminating freedoms for them than the organization as a whole.
  3. Nevertheless, they should have the rights to limit/remove freedoms, and these limitations should be based on whether they are relevant to achieving the organizations pre-stated mission.
  4. Ultimately, the right outside force to judge whether this was a proper imposition to make on employees should be people who have successfully navigated the same challenges as The Firm but have no direct interest in The Firms current activities.

Each of these four points, if they are accepted as true, has some interesting applications to education. My translation for education colleagues would be:

  1. Districts and states have little reason to make lives shitty for teachers. 7

  2. But some principals, department heads, and others may have the ability to act in ways that are less than proper. 8

  3. Actions that restrict teacher rights should be judged on whether they help the school achieve the district or school’s pre-stated mission.

  4. Disputes between teachers and their bosses, should not be adjudicated by a typical jury or judge. Instead, the actions of the principal should be judged by other principals who have been successful, preferably with some distance from the actual organization (i.e. not principals who might compete for the offending principals job or may want to hire or be stuck with that teacher based on the proceedings).

I think that points 1 and 2 are fairly obvious. Points 3 and 4, however, are far more interesting.

Kimball is attempting to split the difference a fascinating way. I believe he would accept that employment contracts are, by necessity, “ambiguous” in the way that BRG defines that term. His argument is, therefore, that the mission and purpose of the organization should notbe ambiguous. So long as the organization’s mission is clear, an employment contract becomes consent to do whatever has a rational basis for furthering those goals. In this way, there is an ethical standard by which we can judge new situations that could never have been anticipated directly at the contracting stage. For example, it may be perfectly reasonable for a principal to require a teacher to spend lunch in the student cafeteria so long as their is a rational basis for believing this would further the mission of the school.

In highly unionized workplaces, work rules are so specific that they remove a substantial portion of the ambiguity in contracting. This is generally seen by the left, union members, and other BRG-like thinkers as a huge victory. It implies full consent to the terms of employment and substantial restriction of an employer’s ability to abuse their position and abridge the freedoms of their employees in unethical ways. Schools are generally like this. Practically everything is spelled out about a teacher’s position, often to the minute. How long they get to eat lunch, how much unstructured time they get during the day, how long they have to spend time working with other teachers, how long they are allowed to be placed in front of kids, how many kids can be placed in front of a teacher at any given time, these conditions and more are detailed in teacher contracts.

In my experience, when I ask a union supporter why they think unions are good, they almost always point out “abuses” of employers that occurred often before the union wrestled power from the grips of the few and the privileged back to the laborers. I have to wonder how much of their support comes from a lack of common, clear definition of unethical abridgments of freedom in the workplace. The solution to this ambiguity is requiring that all actions be consented to through negotiation and contracting, which also determines that dispute resolution is a matter of contract law. I have to wonder if both workers and their employers would be better off if there was a universal ethical standard like Kimball proposes. This way consent can be given while allowing more ambiguity in the contract itself. Right now employers fight for this ambiguity depending solely on appeals to trust and cooperation, two things that are rarely earned before working with someone as would be required.

I can’t say that I understand labor dispute resolution well enough to comment on the differences between Kimball’s fourth suggestion and current practice. However, it is pretty clear to me that enforcement through contract law is costly and inefficient, regardless whether it is effective in adjudicating disputes in an ethical matter. Labor relations boards, as far as I can tell, seem to be a political tool swaying between dramatically increasing worker power, especially when members are current or former full-time employees and members of a union, and increasing employer power when more corporate representation is assured. If only I believed it were possible to have an apolitical, disinterested board, with sector-specific expertise, determine whether there is a “rational basis” for employer actions that Kimball envisions.

I am left with more questions than answers, but, for me, there is a rich appeal to utilizing the mission of an organization to determine whether the actions of both it and its employees are just.


  1. Here is the (socialist?) critique of libertarians and right to work that sparked the discussion. Then two economists jumped in. The response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians, meanwhile, continues to pour in rapidly.  

  2. I lean toward the latter, even if I disagree sometimes both with the means and ends of the current reform movement. 

  3. I am skeptical about licensing in general. I’ve seen substantially more research to support experience than licensing requirements in education and/or additional education. Various alternative teacher pathways now exist.  

  4. Whereas I find some of the “anti-s” in the previous sentence worthy of discussion, I find the massive, corporate, right-wing conspiracy stuff to be 98% bullocks.  

  5. BRG= Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch, authors of the Crooked Timber post. This acronym has been used in contrast with BHL, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, during this debate  

  6. or perhaps, if they do they feel that this would not be the case in a world that more generally matched BHLs principles  

  7. Here I assume that the proper size unit for “The Firm” is above the school. I think this generally holds because district boards and state policy makers tend to be more directly accountable to citizens than schools. The relationship here is much more like shareholders and/or customers to business than the citizen to school relationship.  

  8. Here, the school-level administration represents the “underbosses”. Given that much of the debate over teacher evaluation and rules on hiring and firing stem from debates about both principal quality and principal power, I think this is the right assignment.  

This entry was tagged as bleeding heart libertarians economics education libertarianism liberty political philosophy public-sector unions teacher evaluation union

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