By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 03/25/07
A few weeks ago the nation was stunned to learn of some of the conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center. This is supposedly the flag-ship military hospital that even provides medical care for many of the elected officials in Washington. For all of us who hold our military personnel in the highest esteem for their sacrifices in behalf of our country and security, the revelations were demoralizing at best, and devastating at worst.
However something often overlooked in a discussion of the Walter Reed conditions, is exactly what the problem is at the root, and how it got that way. The issues are not rhetorical, but demand further analysis.
Apparently, it is not the medical care by the doctors, surgeons, and the nursing staff that suffers. By all accounts, the actual medical care is outstanding. Good enough to provide medical care to the President and the Vice President for their regular checks up and more complex medical procedures.
Aside from the bureaucratic blunders, the biggest problems apparently have to do with the physical facilities, maintenance, and sanitation. Problems with rodents and mold don’t rest with doctors and nurses, they are supposed to be dealt with by those in maintenance. Regrettably, they are governed by civil service rules that prevent government employees from ever being fired. Currently those working at the hospital, and elsewhere throughout the government, are protected by the most complicated set of job protection rules outside of old East Germany.
Nominally, the military is responsible for running the facility. But how is the Surgeon General of the Army, or even the hospital administrator supposed to ensure proper maintenance and sanitary conditions if those failing to provide such are protected from being fired? These same conditions are found anyplace where market forces have been artificially removed and there is a total absence of incentives, competition, effective oversight, and operational controls.
Frankly we find the same situation in public education. A few weeks ago Steve Jobs, Chairman and CEO of Apple, Inc., and Pixar raised a few eyebrows with comments made to an education reform conference in Houston. He said, "I believe that what’s wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This has constrained schools from attracting and retaining only the best teachers and from dismissing the less effective ones. This, in turn, deters quality people from seeking to become principals and superintendents. What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? Not really great ones because if you’re really smart you go, ‘I can’t win.’" Jobs concluded his remarks by stating, "This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy." Attendees at the conference reportedly "applauded enthusiastically" at his remarks. And so they should.
If there is going to ever be meaningful reform in education or in government-run hospitals, the stranglehold of unions over administration must be broken. Those who are incompetent, ineffectual, and lackadaisical should not be tolerated in any of our government operated services. Administrators must be able to, within guidelines of an adequate redress model, fire and remove from their positions those who give government jobs a bad name.
John Gardner, former U.S. Commissioner of Education in his book "Excellence" stressed the point that for our educational system to truly teach our children and achieve it’s full stature, a system of incentives for quality performance is critical. Not surprisingly, the Idaho Education Association opposes merit pay based on performance. I have never understood why incredible teachers like Joe Morris, Sharon Sanders, Amy Atkinson, and Wendy Shelman should be limited in their compensation and paid no more than a bad teacher with the same longevity, experience, and educational credentials. What is the logic in that? Granted, those outstanding teachers have an inner drive that compels them to do and be their best. Why should they not be compensated based on their abilities, determination, commitment, and performance? Many of those elements are subjective, but much in performance can be quantified.
Currently about one fifth of adults are classified as "functionally illiterate," and about one third of the residents of D.C. are so classified. Makes you wonder how many of those work for the Federal government. We can’t help but wonder how much lower that number would be if only the dedicated and competent teachers were retained.
In 1983 I served on the Commission for Excellence in Public Education. I rue the failures of that commission in addressing properly the merit pay for quality teachers and the stranglehold that unionization has had on excellence in our educational system.
As long as administrators’ hands are tied from removing either incompetent teachers or hospital maintenance workers, our governmental systems will be mired in mediocrity and sub-par performance. Amazingly, our Congress doesn’t seem to grasp that reality, as they are now embarked on a move to unionize the workers of the Transportation Safety Administration. That’s all we need: mediocrity in transportation safety to be added to hospital maintenance and education of our children!