ST. LOUIS – The coming of September brings two rituals in American life. First, we celebrate Labor Day, honoring the workers who provide our daily bread.

Second, schools across the land open within a week or two either side of the summer-ending Labor Day holiday.

One organization plays an important role in both rituals: the National Education Association. While chartered by Congress as a professional organization of educators, in the last generation the NEA has been transformed into the nation’s largest and most powerful labor union.

When governments were small, successful labor groups like the American Federation of Labor practiced “business unionism,” concentrating on negotiating wage and working-condition issues rather than emphasizing political action.

In the era of big government, however, public-employee unions like the NEA and the rival American Federation of Teachers have found that the path to success includes exercising political clout.

The NEA combines collective bargaining with political activism.

No other group, for example, has claimed as many delegates at recent Democratic Party conventions.

Its substantial financial support in political campaigns has contributed to legislative victories on education issues in capitals across the land.

With respect to bread-and-butter issues, the NEA benefits from its public-sector orientation. Since school boards and administrators give away other people’s money, they are generous in negotiating with the unions.

As a school board member, I once voted against a contract increasing teacher-compensation costs about 7 percent a year, for which I received strong union attacks, one witnessed by my daughter. It is personally less costly to be generous.

In 1950, the average teacher’s salary in the public schools was only 3 percent more than the average of all workers. By 1993, it was 26 percent.

The average teacher in the public schools earns more than 50 percent more than their counterparts in private schools. Fringe benefits similarly exceed those typically offered private-sector workers.

Yet my main concern with the NEA and AFT is not that they extort income from taxpayers beyond what market conditions dictate.

It is that they are the leading enemy of changing a broken system of educational delivery in the U.S. Real per pupil costs of public schools have quadrupled since 1950 and they are now about 50 percent higher than in private schools.

Americans would accept this if the public schools were delivering steadily improving outcomes. The evidence, however, is that improvements, if any, have been modest.

In the language of economists, productivity is falling in education as it rises elsewhere –resource usage is growing faster than outcomes.

Apologists for the education establishment blame the customer for stagnant outcomes –the declining parental involvement m education, for instance.

While this is a factor, many good studies show that inner-city kids from broken homes are educated more cheaply in private schools than in public schools, which is probably why the teachers themselves disproportionately use private schools for their own children.

We have a public-education monopoly that seems to live by the credo established by private monopolist William Vanderbilt more than a century ago: “Let the public be damned.”

In the private sector, “the customer is always right.”

Yet in recent oral arguments in an important Ohio court case involving school vouchers, the AFT referred to parents as “inconsequential conduits” in education.

This explains popular support for fairly radical reform, to a market-based system of competition and privatization.

Aside from vouchers for private schooling, this reform might include private contracting of school services, charter schools, home schooling, corporate education programs and greater growth of existing private schools.

Yet the unions are fighting these changes the whole way. They are spending millions to keep legislatures and voters from approving vouchers and even smaller changes, such as eased certification requirements for teachers.

We have many wonderful teachers in America. Honor them this Labor Day. But let us show some support as well for those who work to reform our costly, ineffective education system.