Ever since the Michelle Bachelet administration announced its proposal for education reform, the issue of teacher salaries has become the focus of much public discussion.
While the debate has centered on whether or not it was the right move, or whether it’s too much or too little, few have bothered to question whether the state should decide teacher salaries in the first place.
The government claims this is about giving teachers a “fair wage,” or about setting wages high enough to attract the best professionals to the classrooms, but what we are actually witnessing is shameless economic interventionism.
Bachelet not only wants to set wages for public-school teachers, she also wants to regulate the earnings of 90 percent of Chile’s teachers, regardless of their employer.
Instead of leaving it up to the market, the Chilean government wants to fix the price of education. Once it has passed the law, it will logically adopt the necessary measures to ensure compliance.
Governments often manipulate prices in a naive attempt to protect either consumers (price ceilings) or suppliers (price floors). Despite whatever good intentions the government may have, the results of this sort of intervention are always vastly different than those intended. It always makes things worse, and teacher salaries will be no exception.
Once the state sets a fixed wage, the market — teachers, education-service providers, students, and their families — can no longer influence the price of education. Teacher salaries will cease to be priced properly and become some arbitrary figure, arrogantly conjured up by bureaucrats, without any relationship to the market.
Furthermore, when the state takes over education, we can expect other major consequences, such as: (1) allowing bureaucratization and state rigidity to take the place of expertise and mastery of a subject; (2) losing the feedback and self-regulation among peers to bureaucrats in some distant office; and (3) diminishing the autonomy and academic freedom teachers once enjoyed by asking them to simply carry out an academic program designed by others.
It is the consumers who should determine the prices of goods and services. In education, it should be the expectations and perceptions of students’ families that drive the price. The “decent wage” that teachers are demanding in Chile, and that the government intends to give them, has no basis in economics. It’s a foolish response to a group’s desire for reality to be somehow different.
If this were actually a good idea, why not fix wages for all jobs? What makes education so special that it merits regulated prices?
By ignoring the market, the government aims to apply its central-planning framework to education, in order to serve specific interests that are far from quality education.
Iván Garay Pagliai has a bachelor’s degree in political science and is the founder and director of Cheque Escolar in Chile. Follow @garay_p.