Ignore what's going on in Wisconsin, as public "servants" riot to keep their higher-than-market wages in the face of a government fiscal crisis. Assume for the sake of argument that the government was on a sound financial footing; public education would still be irretrievably broken, because the incentive structure all points in the wrong way.
I talked to a Spanish teacher in a suburban Boston public high school last night. She expressed her disapproval of the idea of merit pay for teachers. “Some of my students hate their parents and some have been sexually abused,” she noted, “but my salary is supposed to be based on their performance?”
I responded that I thought the deeper question was how school administrators would evaluate merit. I asked “What incentive does a school administrator have to do a good job evaluating merit, or indeed, to do any work at all?” The teacher said “none, especially if they are a member of a protected minority group. They can’t be fired, no matter how little they do.” That made sense to me; the school is guaranteed to get nearly all of the students in the town regardless of whether or not the administrators do anything (few parents can afford to pay property taxes that fund public schools and then pay private school tuition as well). Wasn’t a teacher also guaranteed customers even if she didn’t work? “You have to try to sell the students at the beginning of the year that the class will be fun. Otherwise it is just unpleasant to sit with them for the remaining 8 months. If I’m incompetent and lazy, I will still get the same paycheck and the same number of students, but it will be tedious to share a classroom with unhappy students. That’s my incentive to work.”
Reflecting on this conversation, I was surprised that anyone thinks merit pay will work.
The only question is why anyone would expect any reforms to improve the system.