Feminists complain constantly about perceived inequities in the work place-and yet most vocally oppose something that could provide real benefits for thousands upon thousands of working women: school choice.

Not only would choice allow teachers to improve their financial outlooks, but they could give them more autonomy. This is the argument of an important new study, Empowering Teachers with Choice: How a Diversified Education System Benefits Teachers, Students, and America, by Dr. Vicki Murray. The study is published by the Independent Women’s Forum.

For those of us who remember and perhaps count among our blessings Miss So-and-So, that starchy Latin teacher who dragged us through all three parts of Gaul, or perhaps a female English teacher who helped us come to love Hardy, Murray’s study will remind us how much things have changed-and how much they haven’t.
In the stability department, the teaching profession remains a popular career choice for women. “Education is the second largest U.S. industry, and female employees outnumber male employees by more than 3 to one,” writes Murray. It has ever been so. In the old days, talented women often had no other option. But now they do-the women who might automatically have become teachers in the past are just as likely today to become lawyers or doctors (though teaching does allow a degree more of flexibility for those women who want to bring up children).

With educated women now having the same choices as their male counterparts, schools, if they are to attract and retain bright women (and bright men, too, of course!), must present attractive career choices. Our current reliance primarily on the one-size-fits all public school no longer works in this more competitive hiring environment. But there is no reason that this system must be the only system. “Imagine,” writes Murray, “if teaching resembled the medical or legal profession. Like doctors and attorneys, teachers would choose their areas and levels of specialization, and pick from a variety of employers that best match their unique specialties and interests. Similar to hospitals and law firms today, schools would operate according to various missions, attracting and serving general or specific populations. Schools would come in many sizes and operate in both the public and private sectors.”  

One of the best ways to achieve this is through school choice, as is reflected in the voucher and charter schools movements. In fact, as Murray notes, a burgeoning movement has a small number of teachers pioneering the kinds of schools where they can be happy and do their best work.

In a way, some of the great public schools really were charter schools-they just weren’t called that. Take Boston Latin, the oldest public school in America, founded in 1635 (before Harvard), which was established to teach the humanities, with a grounding in Latin. Sounds like a charter school to me! My hometown of Greenville, Mississippi boasts a school named after Miss Carrie Stern, a school teacher from the 1920s and ‘30s, who taught generations to love the theater and art. She was famous for her theatrical productions, one featuring hanging Japanese lanterns for a Shakespeare comedy. Come to think of it, this too, sounds sort of like a charter school before we knew the word. 

When Boston Latin’s celebrated headmaster, Ezekiel Cheever, died in 1708, Cotton Mather, the famous preacher, noted, “We generally concur in acknowledging that New England has never known a better teacher.” Having passed a portrait of Miss Carrie Lee every day of my life in elementary school, I can attest that Ezekiel Cheever wasn’t the only teacher put on an Olympian pedestal. This kind of prestige is important to the profession, and it won’t return until teaching becomes a more competitive field. 

Many teachers today feel devalued.  The charter school movement, by recognizing and utilizing their professionalism and knowledge, returns the esteem in which members of the teaching profession were once held. The point here is that when teachers can teach-really teach-they are respected.

Closely related to respect (I’m afraid this must be said) is money, and charter schools are conducive to merit pay.  Teacher unions, which want pay raises without reference to the teacher’s ability and dedication, vehemently oppose this. Murray quotes a study which argues that high-performing professionals are discouraged from entering “the one profession in which pay is decoupled” from performance.

“Uniform salary schedules are a significant obstacle to paying teachers competitive salaries,” Murray writes, because this compresses the salaries of all teachers. About 75 percent of the decline of quality in the teaching profession, she writes, can be attributed to uniform salary schedules.

And what about the schools charter school teachers leave behind? If there is a brain drain, this might be all to the good. “The schools those teachers left behind,” writes Murray, “are taking notice because their employees now have more appealing options.”

Just like doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. 

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.