The free-market solution to the COVID school situation

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Here in Bellevue, 70% of parents want to send their kids to school in-person. But teachers’ unions don’t want to go back to school (although they still want their members to get paid the same). So we have a significant issue.

I propose this free-market solution to solve this problem and make everyone just about everyone happy, and some teachers will get a raise / hazard pay…

1. Give families options. You can choose to go back to school in-person, or a remote learning plan. Everyone gets their first choice. You can do this easily – Bellevue did a parent survey and got the results in a week. 70% of parents wanted to send their kids to school, so we’ll use that assumption in this plan.

2. Do the same survey for teachers. If 70% of teachers want to go back to the classroom, bingo, you’re done. The other 30% of teachers become remote instructors, and everyone’s happy. Now, there will probably have to be some load balancing – one part of the city or one grade might be higher or lower than average, but in general, you are all set.

Less than 70% of teachers may want to go back. What then?

3. First, the district can look at hiring free-agent teachers who are willing to work in the classroom. New grads. Teachers that have newly moved to the area. Teachers that have retired. Teachers that moved to other professions that may consider coming back or maybe got laid off elsewhere during the crisis. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to hire any warm body with a teaching certificate, there are plenty of people out there willing to work.

4. If you still don’t have enough teachers to fill the classroom, you do another survey with the teachers that want to work remotely, and you ask them, “Would you come back with hazard pay?” Each teacher indicates how much it would take to have them come back. Would they come back for a 10% raise? A 20% raise? More? Eventually, you will find a market-clearing price – the price where you pay teachers enough that every position is filled – by using a dutch auction process (similar to the Google IPO).

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need 100 in-person teachers to teach 70% of Bellevue students:

  • 50 teachers say they want to come back
  • 10 new teachers are hired
  • 20 teachers will come back for a 10% pay raise
  • 20 teachers will come back for a 20% pay raise
  • 20 teachers will come back for a 30% pay raise

Boom. You’re done. At the 20% pay raise level, you have enough teachers to fill the classroom.

Now here’s the key. EVERY TEACHER GETS THAT 20% PAY RAISE. Even the ones who said they’d come back at their old salary. Hazard pay for everyone who is in the classroom.

As for the teachers that wanted a 30% raise to come back – their services aren’t needed. The positions are filled at a lower cost.

Of course, the question arises, where does that money come from, and what about the glut of teachers that want to work remotely? Now you need to apply market forces here as well.

5. The final step is to do the same process for the teachers that want to remain working remotely. This time, you ask them the question, “What pay cut would you accept to teach remotely.”

For example, let’s say you need 100 remote teachers:

  • 20 won’t take any pay cut
  • 40 will take a 10% pay cut
  • 40 will take a 20% pay cut
  • 40 will take a 30% pay cut
  • 20 will take a 40% pay cut

There you have it. The teachers that were willing to take 20%, 30%, and 40% pay cuts all get a job, because it gets you to 100 teachers. They’re all hired at the highest rate – the market-clearing rate – only have to take a 20% pay cut. So even if the teacher said they’d accept a 40% pay cut, they only take a 20% pay cut.

Now, you’re probably also asking, what happens to the extra 60 teachers that wouldn’t take a pay cut or would only accept a 10% pay cut? The problem is, they’re offering a service that the market won’t bear. They refuse to work in-person, and charge above the market rate for remote work. So they either need to go in-person or lower their price. Pretty simple, and market economics at its most basic level.

The savings from remote teachers will largely pay for the hazard pay for in-person teachers. What if there’s a shortfall? That’s where you may need the state or federal government to come in. If they’re willing to spend $30 billion on keeping the airlines running during this crisis, they can spend a paltry few millions or billions to pay for hazard pay for teachers.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is you wouldn’t need any government assistance at all. If teachers faced the trade-off of slightly higher pay to work in the classroom, vs. slightly lower pay remotely (or no job), most will take in-person, and you only need 70% to take the deal.

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