Back to school season is in full swing.  Understandably, much of the attention this time of year is on students as they purchase school supplies, pick out a first-day-of-school outfit, and prepare to start a new grade level.  But it’s back to school time for teachers, too.  And, unfortunately, our nation’s education system constantly fails teachers.

Education is the second largest industry in the United States, but unlike other professions, teachers have fewer options when it comes to their career track.  Consider the choices that most people get to make in their careers:  employees can choose to specialize in a certain area, to work for a large or small company, or perhaps weigh a higher salary vs. a more flexible schedule.  That simply doesn’t exist on a large scale for teachers.  Just as most students attend an assigned, government-run school, most teachers are employed by those same public schools.

Such a cookie-cutter system creates few choices for teachers.  Within a given district, salaries, administrative set-up, and curriculum are mostly the same.  Schools rarely compete to attract and retain the best teachers.  Except for the minority of teachers that gain employment through a private or charter school, teachers are largely trapped within a one-size-fits-all system.

Not surprisingly, this affects overall teacher satisfaction.  A 2007 report from the Independent Women’s Forum looked at teacher satisfaction rates across different school systems.  Overall satisfaction rates among charter-school teachers were twice as high as private-school teachers and more than three times as high as teachers in traditional public schools.  The same report revealed the alarming statistic that public-school teachers indicate that they are twice as likely as private-school teachers to sometimes feel that doing their best is a waste of time and more than four times as likely to worry about job security.

Parents should take note.  Having a good teacher has been widely documented to improve the results of students.  Parents and students would be better much served by an education system that rewards good teaching (through policies such as merit pay), rather than a failing system that demoralizes and frustrates teachers.

The key to such an improved system is more choice.  Most of the debate about school choice has centered on the policy’s impact on students, but teachers would benefit from greater freedom and a more diverse education marketplace as well.    

Under the current system, failing schools face little threat of being shut down, it’s nearly impossible to fire bad teachers if they get tenure, and schools have little incentive to improve their services for either students or teachers.  But increased choice would change all of that.  Just as schools would be held accountable for their results and thus forced to compete for students (since parents could easily withdraw their child from a failing school), schools would also be forced to compete over teachers.  To attract the best teachers, schools would have to do what other professions already do – offer an attractive mix of salary, benefits, schedule, and assignments.  With more options, teachers would be better able to find a situation that fits their individual needs and would encourage them to stay in the profession longer. 

Teachers have a significantly higher turnover rate than most professions.  The current set-up simply is not designed to reward and retain good teachers.  Despite the fact that a majority of teachers favor competitive salaries, less than 1% of all teacher pay is based on performance.  A system of increased choice in education could do wonders to encourage more competitive salary structures, and hopefully recruit and retain outstanding teachers in the process.

Teachers unions should recognize that a more robust education marketplace would be good for their members as well as students.  Unfortunately, to date they have been on the wrong side of this issue. 

Last fall, teachers unions waged a war on school choice in Utah, helping to defeat a ballot initiative that would have implemented a state-wide voucher system.  The program would have benefited thousands of students, parents, and teachers, but that didn’t stop the National Education Association (NEA) from spending $3.3 million dollars to fight the referendum. 

The NEA will reportedly spend upwards of $40-50 million in the 2008 election cycle.  Teachers would be wise to ask the NEA if they plan to spend any of that money to promote reforms that would improve the future of the teaching profession.    

Allison Kasic is director of the R. Gaull Silberman Center for Collegiate Studies at the Independent Women’s Forum.