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Friday, March 24, 2023

Los Angeles Education Workers Wouldn’t Have to Strike If We Rethought the Education System

There’s a solution here that almost nobody is talking about.

Image Credit: PBS NewsHour - YouTube

A massive three-day strike took over Los Angeles this week as 30,000 education support staff walked off the job, protesting for higher wages, respectful treatment, and increased staffing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was forced to cancel classes from Tuesday to Thursday as a result of the strike, disrupting education, meals, counseling, and other social services for 420,000 students.

The strike was called by the Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and classroom assistants. It was supported by United Teachers of Los Angeles—the local teachers’ union—which asked its 35,000 members to walk off the job as well in solidarity with their fellow workers.

“We’ve had enough of empty promises,” said Max Arias, executive director of Local 99. “If LAUSD truly values and is serious about reaching an agreement, they must show workers the respect they deserve.”

“We live in this weird paradox as workers that help feed children and yet we struggle to feed our own children,” said union member Adrian Alverez. “We help students go to college, yet we don’t have enough money to send our kids to college.”

The district, unsurprisingly, issued a rather diplomatic statement in response to the protests. “We continue to do everything possible to reach an agreement that honors the hard work of our employees, corrects historic inequities, maintains the financial stability of the District and brings students back to the classroom,” the statement reads. “We are hopeful these talks continue and look forward to updating our school community on a resolution.”

A Different Solution

While it’s tempting to pick a side in this latest battle between politicians and public workers, it’s worth taking a step back first and reflecting on the framing of this whole debate. If you think about it, this is essentially a win-lose situation. A win for the unions and workers would mean higher wages, which would be a loss for the politicians—and ultimately for the taxpayers. On the other hand, a win for taxpayers would constitute a loss for the workers.

In recent days, all the usual arguments have been thrown around about why one side should win over the other. But what hasn’t gotten much attention at all is the question of why we should accept a win-lose outcome in the first place. What if there’s a completely different way out, one that would be a win for everyone?

I’d like to suggest that there is such a win-win solution, but it will require some serious outside-the-box thinking. Many will be tempted to write off the solution from the get-go, but I’d encourage those people to at least give it some genuine consideration. As Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need to be willing to entertain different ideas and approaches, even radically different ones, if we want to escape these endless win-lose battles.

So what’s the solution? Quite simply, hand education over to the private sector. Create a complete separation of school and state.

A Win for Workers

First, let’s discuss why this would be a win for workers. Under the current framework, workers have little power to negotiate wages and working conditions. Sure, they can strike every now and then, but for the most part they are beholden to the politicians.

In a free market with private schools, however, workers would have much more negotiating power because they’d have far more choices of who to work for. Don’t like how you’re being treated in your school? There’s another one down the street. Don’t think you’re being paid enough? It’s pretty easy to argue for a raise when other schools are actively competing for your services.

In public schools you can threaten to strike. In a private school, you can threaten to quit and go work for the school’s competitor. And in the free market, you get paid based on the value you bring to the table, not based on some arbitrary pay schedule the government comes up with.

It doesn’t matter if your employer is greedy. They’ll treat you right if they want to stay in business. Politicians on the other hand, well, they don’t have to worry about going under, so why should they care how they treat you?

A Win for Families

Fair enough, you might say, but wouldn’t private schools be expensive? Wouldn’t a great many families be priced out of the market?

The answer is, probably not.

The first thing to keep in mind is that families will be saving a ton of money in taxes which they can put toward education. If it costs a family $20,000 in taxes per year for school, then $20,000 in tuition will make no difference to their household budget. Private schools might even cost less than public schools due to market-driven efficiencies, so many families would likely come out better off than they are now.

Some underprivileged families, of course, currently pay very little in taxes and would thus have to put a lot more money into education than they do now. However, this hardship can be mitigated through a combination of charity and bursary programs. A common initiative might be for schools to charge a bit extra for standard tuition so that a certain number of spots can be offered at a reduced rate to underprivileged students. Given the current widespread support of tax-funded public schooling for the precise purpose of helping the poor, it’s likely such programs would be widely implemented and well funded.

Would schools vary in their quality and cost? Quite likely, yes, though this is nothing to be concerned about. There are grocery stores that cater to the more affluent and others that cater to the less affluent, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure, Walmart-level education might not be the best, but it’s hard to do worse than government-level. Even the lowest quality schools in a free market would likely be a step up from what public schools are now. And remember, competition will force schools to perform well or else go out of business, so the worst schools will get weeded out over time.

Pro-Worker, Anti-Government

As we’ve seen, privatization would be a win for education workers and also for students and parents. The other group of winners is of course the taxpayers, who can now spend their money on the things they value most, whether that be housing, healthcare, or simply a much-needed vacation

The other thing that’s hopefully clear is that being against higher taxes doesn’t have to mean being against good compensation for workers. It only means that right now because we have this win-lose political system that forces taxpayers and workers into an antagonistic relationship.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

By privatizing education, we can break free from this win-lose approach and create a world where willing customers patronize well-run schools with well-paid staff. No longer will we have to deal with picket lines and protests. Instead, workers can focus on outdoing one another in providing the best educational services at the best price.

Does it sound too good to be true? Maybe it is. But one thing is certain: the current problems won’t go away with the same thinking that created them.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.