A public school administrator sat in a meeting with the teachers’ union leadership. The purpose of the meeting was to analyze increasing benefits costs. As every finance executive knows, benefits costs are increasing far more quickly than salaries. In the administrator's district, salaries had been increasing around 3.7% while benefits hovered near 10%. The business world gasps at that number, and the union leadership said “So what?”
The discrepancy between salary increases and benefits increases is easy math. What’s hard – and was the purpose of the meeting – was to highlight the drivers of that discrepancy. Why are school districts spending so much more every year on health care?
The administrator at the meeting understood the bottom line, but she did not understand the specific ways her employees were spending health insurance dollars. She neither wanted to know nor had the time to review the difficult-to-understand data. Like most organizations, the administrator brought in a benefits consultant. The consultant was tasked with analyzing spending patterns and highlighting increased costs.
The union leadership didn’t want to be at the meeting. They had a contractual obligation to meet and talk about benefits, but each one of the three union leaders at one point or another pulled aside the administrator and made it clear that that they didn’t really care that health care costs were increasing disproportionately. The administrator was sympathetic to their argument. The union leaders argued that health care is a right, even if their argument doesn't comport with how health care works under current US law. The union leaders argue that making patients comparison shop for cheaper health care only works if those patients have sufficient information to make an informed choice, and patients have nowhere near enough information to make informed decisions. Even though the administrator was sympathetic to the idea that health care ought to be a right, the administrator had to point out that, at this moment in this country, it’s not. The administrator’s job was to reduce run-away health insurance costs and reallocate that money to teaching and learning.
Picturing the meeting room, there were the union leaders, the administrator and the health insurance consultant. The union leadership put aside their desire for universal, free health care and tried to dive into a more immediate concern. Pulling the administrator aside, they wanted to know “Who is this consultant, and how do we know we can trust him?”
The biggest challenge in education today is not about funding or control. The most significant issue in education today is trust. A meeting to discuss drivers of health care costs and win-win ways to control them is pointless if the people at the table don’t trust the expert. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every meeting where a union leader asked the question “Who is paying this guy?” The underlying assumption is that if the Board of Education is paying for a consultant, then the consultant is going to say whatever the Board wants. The argument is logical to a point. Following the money exposes the incentives. But if we assume experts and everyone else can never offer independent assessments, no one can be trusted.
If a business leader starts a school, she starts by looking at expected revenues and figuring out what she can spend. Leaders of existing public schools reverse that. Public school leaders's first question is always “is this politically palatable?”
Why is anyone surprised that there is a trust gap between these people? They are coming at education from different planets. Teachers' union leaders don’t trust education entrepreneurs. Union leaders have said many times some form of this question: “Who is this consultant/statistician/bus company/food service provider/demographer/economist?” Persons pursuing a profit are not to be trusted. Education entrepreneurs don’t trust public schools and the many people, including administrators, working in them. The entrepreneurs assume the unions don’t care about bottom line costs and just want to push for whatever the local political climate can handle.
The profit motive undercuts trust on one end, and ignoring costs and focusing on politics undercuts trust on the other end.
This trust gap means any crossover leaders, either public entrepreneurs or change-focused union leaders, are in a bind. No one at all trusts them.
The need for trust goes beyond union-board relations in traditional public schools. All education stakeholders need to shift to a problem-solving mindset. It is far easier to criticize and destroy than build and create. Everyone working to improve learning has something to offer and needs to work together, assuming in every first case positive intent. The first and most important way to cooperate is to recognize that everyone is to be trusted.