Unions and the Public Interest

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Is collective bargaining for teachers good for students?

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WINTER 2012 / VOL. 12, NO. 1

Three years after Barack Obama’s election signaled a seeming resurgence for America’s unions, the landscape looks very different. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have limited the reach of collective bargaining for public employees. The moves, especially in Wisconsin, set off a national furor that has all but obscured the underlying debate as it relates to schooling: Should public-employee collective bargaining be reined in or expanded in education? Is the public interest served by public-sector collective bargaining? If so, how and in what ways? Arguing in this forum for more expansive collective bargaining for teachers is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy. Responding that public-employee collective bargaining is destructive to schooling and needs to be reined in is Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and author of Education Myths.


Richard D. Kahlenberg: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s campaign earlier this year to significantly curtail the scope of bargaining for the state’s public employees, including teachers, set off a national debate over whether their long-established right to collectively bargain should be reined in, or even eliminated.

If you’re a Republican who wants to win elections, going after teachers unions makes parochial sense. According to Terry Moe, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gave 95 percent of contributions to Democrats in federal elections between 1989 and 2010. “Collective bargaining is the bedrock of union well-being,” Moe notes, so to constrain collective bargaining is to weaken union power. The partisan nature of Walker’s campaign was revealed when he exempted two public-employee unions that supported him politically: those representing police and firefighters.

But polls suggest that Americans don’t want to see teachers and other public employees stripped of collective bargaining rights. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that by a margin of 61 to 33 percent, Americans oppose ending collective bargaining for public employees. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll discovered that while Americans want public employees to pay more for retirement benefits and health care, 77 percent said unionized state and municipal employees should have the same rights as union members who work in the private sector. Is the public wrong in supporting the rights of teachers and other public employees to collectively bargain? I don’t think so.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

The NEA has existed since 1857 and the AFT since 1916, but teachers didn’t have real influence until they began bargaining collectively in the 1960s. Before that, as Albert Shanker, one of the founding fathers of modern teachers unions, noted, teachers engaged in “collective begging.” Educators were very poorly compensated; in New York City, they were paid less than those washing cars for a living. Teachers were subject to the whims of often autocratic principals and could be fired for joining a union.

Some teachers objected to the idea of collective bargaining. They saw unions as organizations for blue-collar workers, not for college-educated professionals. But Shanker and others insisted that teachers needed collective bargaining in order to be compensated sufficiently and treated as professionals.

Democratic societies throughout the world recognize the basic right of employees to band together to pursue their interests and secure a decent standard of living. Article 23 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides not only that workers should be shielded from discrimination, but also that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

Collective bargaining is important, not only to advance individual interests but to give unions the power to serve as a countervailing force against big business and big government. Citing the struggle of Polish workers against the Communist regime, Ronald Reagan declared in a Labor Day speech in 1980, “where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”

The majority of Americans believe that citizens don’t give up the basic right to collective bargaining just because they work for the government. In free societies across the globe, from Finland to Japan, public school teachers have the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

In the United States, only seven states outlaw collective bargaining for teachers. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia authorize collective bargaining for such employees, and another nine permit it. It is no accident that the seven states that prohibit collective bargaining for teachers are mostly in the Deep South, the region of the country historically most hostile to extending democratic citizenship to all Americans.

Terry Moe finds that collective bargaining for teachers has strong support among candidates for school boards. He writes, “the vast majority of school board candidates, 66 percent, have positive overall attitudes toward collective bargaining. Even among Republicans—indeed, even among Republicans who are not endorsed by the unions—the majority take a positive approach to this most crucial of union concerns.”

Nonetheless, some (including Moe) would prefer that collective bargaining for teachers be severely curtailed, or even outlawed. Ironically, one argument advanced by critics is that collective bargaining is undemocratic. The other major argument is that teacher collective bargaining is bad for education. Both claims are without basis.

Those who argue that collective bargaining for teachers is stacked, even undemocratic, say that, unlike in the private sector, where management and labor go head-to-head with clearly distinct interests, in the case of teachers, powerful unions are actively involved in electing school board members, essentially helping to pick the management team. Moreover, when collective bargaining covers education policy areas, such as class size or discipline codes, the public is shut out of the negotiations, some assert. Along the way, they conclude, the interests of adults in the system are served but not the interests of children.

But these arguments fail to recognize that in a democracy, school boards are ultimately accountable to all voters, not just teachers, who often live and vote outside the district in which they teach, and in any event represent a small share of total voters. Union endorsements matter in school board elections, but so do the interests of general taxpayers and parents and everyone else who makes up the community. If school board members toe a teachers union line that is unpopular with voters, those officials can be thrown out in the next election.

Indeed, one could make a strong argument that any outsized influence that teachers unions exercise in school board elections provides a nice enhancement of democratic decisionmaking on education policy because teachers, as much as any other group in society, can serve as powerful advocates for those Americans who cannot vote: schoolchildren. The interests of teachers and their unions don’t always coincide with those of students, but on the really big issues, such as overall investment in education, the convergence of interests is strong. Certainly, the interests of teachers in ensuring adequate educational investment are far stronger than they are for most voters, who don’t have children in the school system and may be more concerned about holding down taxes than investing in the education of other people’s kids.

American society consistently underinvests in children compared with other leading democratic societies. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the child poverty rate in the United States is 21.6 percent, the fifth-highest among its 40 member nations. Only Turkey, Romania, Mexico, and Israel have higher child-poverty rates. Put differently, we’re in the bottom one-eighth in preventing child poverty. By contrast, when the interests of children are connected with the interests of teachers, as they are on the question of public education spending, the U.S. ranks close to the top one-third. Among 39 OECD nations, the U.S. ranks 14th in spending on primary and secondary education as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Some critics argue that strong teachers unions make for inefficient spending and bad education policies in the instances when teacher and student interests diverge. For example, it is frequently claimed that teachers unions, through collective-bargaining agreements, protect incompetent members and prevent good teachers from being paid more.

This sometimes occurs, and when it does, it is troublesome. But a number of reform union leaders, going back to Al Shanker, have embraced “peer review” plans, which weed out bad teachers in Toledo, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and elsewhere. These reform plans put the lie to the notion that the average teacher has an interest in her union protecting incompetent colleagues. To the contrary, dead wood on the faculty makes every other teacher’s job more difficult. Likewise, numerous local unions have adopted pay-for-performance plans, when the measurement of performance is valid and incentives are in place to encourage good teachers to share innovative teaching techniques rather than hoarding them.

Moreover, many of the things that teachers collectively bargain for are good for kids. The majority of students benefit when teachers can more easily discipline unruly students, for example. (Principals, by contrast, often want to take a softer line so the school’s suspension rates don’t look bad.) Higher compensation packages attract higher-quality teacher candidates and reduce disruptive teacher turnover.

If collective bargaining were really a terrible practice for education, we should see stellar results where it does not occur: in the American South and in the charter school arena, for example. Why, then, aren’t the seven states that forbid collective bargaining for teachers (Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) at the top of the educational heap? Why do charter schools, 88 percent of which are nonunion, only outperform regular public schools 17 percent of the time, as a 2009 Stanford University study found? Why, instead, do we see states like Massachusetts, and countries like Finland, both with strong teachers unions, leading the pack?

Opponents of collective bargaining will immediately point out that poverty rates are high in the American South, and low in Finland, which is an entirely valid point. But doesn’t that suggest that the national obsession with weakening teachers unions may be less important than finding ways to reduce childhood poverty?

Moreover, scholarly studies that seek to control for poverty find that collective bargaining is associated with somewhat stronger, not weaker, student outcomes. Sociologist Robert Carini’s 2002 review of 17 studies found that “unionism leads to modestly higher standardized achievement test scores, and possibly enhanced prospects for graduation from high school.” Even Terry Moe, an outspoken opponent of collective bargaining for teachers (see “Seeing the Forest Instead of the Trees,” book reviews, page 77), suggests that research on the impact of collective bargaining on student outcomes “has generated mixed findings (so far) and doesn’t provide definitive answers.”

For a variety of reasons, collective bargaining for teachers should not be constrained, much less eliminated. Indeed, if teachers are to be partners in innovative education reform (see “A Different Role for Teachers Unions?features, page 16), the scope of collective bargaining should be expanded. When the United Federation of Teachers first began to bargain collectively in the early 1960s, Albert Shanker was distressed that the New York City school board was willing to discuss only traditional issues like wages and benefits and rejected the idea of bargaining over broader policies that the union proposed, such as the creation of magnet schools.

Shanker saw that by reducing the scope of collective bargaining, critics created a political trap for unions. Union leaders were told they could only address bread-and-butter issues and then were criticized for caring only about their own selfish concerns rather than student achievement or larger policy issues. Moreover, Shanker believed that teachers had a lot of good ideas that could be incorporated into collective bargaining agreements, such as teacher peer review, suggestions for the types of curricula that work best in the classroom, and what sorts of programs would lure teachers into high-poverty schools. He also knew that reforms that draw on teacher wisdom are more likely to be effectively implemented when the classroom door closes.

In the end, Shanker’s frustration with the traditional constraints of collective bargaining spurred him to propose, in a 1988 speech at the National Press Club, the creation of “charter schools,” where teachers would draw upon a wealth of experience to try innovative ideas. Much to Shanker’s dismay, the charter school movement went in a very different direction, becoming a vehicle for avoiding unions and reducing teacher voice (and thereby increasing teacher turnover). And charters still educate a very small fraction of students.

Expanding collective bargaining for teachers to more states and to more education issues will give educators greater voice, and in so doing, indirectly strengthen the voice of students. Overall, the evidence suggests that Scott Walker has it exactly wrong, and the American public, which overwhelmingly supports the right to collective bargaining, has it right.

Jay P. Greene: Asking if teachers unions are a positive force in education is a bit like asking if the Tobacco Institute is a positive force in health policy or if the sugar lobby is helpful in assessing the merits of corn syrup. The problem is not that teachers unions are hostile to the interests of students and their families, but that teachers unions, like any organized interest group, are specifically designed to promote the interests of their own members and not to safeguard the interests of nonmembers. To the extent that teachers benefit from more generous pay and benefits, less-demanding work conditions, and higher job security, the unions will pursue those goals, even if achieving them comes at the expense of students. That is what interest groups do. Unfortunately, a public education system that guarantees ever-increasing pay and benefits while lowering work demands on teachers, who virtually hold their positions for life regardless of performance, harms students.

Collective bargaining is the primary vehicle through which the unions enact their preferred policies regarding pay, benefits, job security, and work conditions. It is also the mechanism by which unions collect fees from teachers that provide them with the resources to prevail politically. Until the ability of teachers unions to engage in collective bargaining is restrained, we should expect unions to continue to use it to advance the interests of their adult members over those of children, their families, and taxpayers.

Teachers unions only won the privilege of engaging in collective bargaining in the last 50 years, about when student achievement began to stagnate and costs to soar. A return to the pre–collective bargaining era may be the tonic our education system needs to return to growth in achievement and restraint in costs.

Jay P. Greene

The nature and function of organized interest groups is widely known and understood. Of course, there is nothing wrong with people organizing interest groups to advocate for themselves. That is an essential part of the freedom of assembly, protected by the U.S. Constitution. If people dislike what an interest group is advocating, they can organize other interest groups to compete in the marketplace of ideas and advocate for other concerns. The normal process of checks and balances among competing interest groups, however, has failed when it comes to education.

There are three factors that have contributed to the failure of other groups to check the power of teachers unions. First, there is an asymmetry in the ability of groups to organize in education, significantly favoring the teachers unions. Teachers unions have a huge advantage in organizing and advocating for their interests. Employees of the public school system are physically concentrated in school buildings, making it easier for them to organize. And because current employees are in a good position to know how they can benefit from the system, they can be mobilized relatively easily to advocate for those policies. Parents, taxpayers, and members of the general public are geographically dispersed, making it harder for them to organize. And because they are not immersed in education matters, they cannot easily envision how policy changes might help or hurt, making it harder to mobilize them on those issues. It is hardly unique to education that concentrated interests have an advantage over diffuse interests, but this is one factor contributing to teachers union dominance.

Second, teachers unions have fooled a large section of the general public and elites into thinking of them as something other than a regular interest group advocating for their own concerns.

The teachers unions have worked hard to convince people that they are a collection of educators who love our children almost as much as the parents do. They’re like the favorite aunt or uncle who dotes on our children. This image of the teachers unions as part of our family is facilitated by the fact that virtually every college-educated household (the households with the greatest political influence) has at least one current or former public school teacher sitting at the dining table when they gather for Thanksgiving. This impression is also fostered by ad campaigns featuring teachers buying school supplies out of their own pockets and movie portraits of heroic teachers believing in students, even as their parents have abandoned them.

Of course, some teachers really do buy school supplies with their own money (which should make people wonder what kind of education system would make that necessary after spending an average of more than $12,000 per student each year). And some teachers really are like the doting aunt or uncle who sticks with kids, even when the parents have given up. But loving children and being part of the family is certainly not what teachers unions are about. They are about accumulating the power necessary to advocate for the interests of their members. In a moment of candor, Bob Chanin, former general counsel of the National Education Association, explained the key to the union’s effectiveness: “Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is NOT because of our creative ideas. It is NOT because of the merit of our positions. It is NOT because we care about children, and it is NOT because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”

The disarming image of teachers unions as Mary Poppins has begun to morph into that of a burly autoworker, as teachers union advocacy has become more militant in recent years. As states attempt to trim very generous benefit packages for teachers, the unions have organized large demonstrations, occupied state capitols, and chanted angry slogans. The public image of teachers unions fighting like autoworkers for the benefit to retire at 55 with full medical coverage and 66 percent of their peak salary while the economy is in shambles and the quality of their industry stagnates has done much to undermine the doting aunt or uncle meme. The angry slogans emanating from Diane Ravitch’s and Valerie Strauss’s Twitter feeds may soothe disgruntled teachers, but they are eroding the public perception that teachers unions are somehow different from other interest groups. Media and policy elites are increasingly treating teachers union claims with the same skepticism that they used to apply only to other interest groups.

A third factor is that unions have significant influence over who is elected or appointed to negotiate with them over pay, benefits, and work conditions. In the private sector, the power of unions is constrained by the competing organized interests of management. When they sit down to negotiate pay, benefits, and work conditions, members of management are inclined to represent the interests of shareholders, not those of employees. But in education, as in other public-sector collective bargaining, the interests of employees are represented on both sides of the table. The employees, as citizens, can organize, finance, and vote for elected officials who favor the union’s interests. It is precisely for this reason that public employees historically did not have collective bargaining rights.

But didn’t the lack of collective bargaining rights sometimes leave teachers vulnerable to arbitrary and discriminatory treatment by school administrators? Yes, but unionization and collective bargaining were neither necessary nor efficient means of correcting those abuses. We can look to other public employees, such as members of the armed forces, who still do not have collective bargaining rights, to see how progress could have occurred without unionization. The military, like public schools, was once racially segregated. African American servicemen and servicewomen were treated horribly. And sometimes officers treated all soldiers in an arbitrary and unfair manner. These abuses were not corrected by unionization and collective bargaining in the military. They were corrected by executive orders and changing legislation governing those public employees. The same path could have been taken with public school employees without the political distortions that public employee unions introduce by virtue of having their interests represented on both sides of the bargaining table.

It may have taken longer than many would like to integrate the military, expand the roles of women in the armed forces, and end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but we were able to achieve all of those through an open, public process of changing laws and regulations. Unionized collective bargaining might also have addressed those issues, but it would have been done mostly behind closed doors and would have been accompanied by provisions to protect the narrow interests of the unions at the expense of the public interest. Perhaps the use of drones would have been restricted because it displaces jobs for Air Force pilots; perhaps there would be caps on the hours soldiers could engage in combat. Who knows what else a unionized military might have produced? The point is we rightly restrict the ability of members of the armed forces from unionizing and engaging in collective bargaining, just as we once did and could again for teachers. The claim that public employees have a “right” to unionize and collectively bargain and that exercising this “right” necessarily advances the public interest is obviously false.

The proper mechanism for improving compensation and work conditions in the public sector is through changes in law and regulation. The salary, benefits, job security, and work conditions of public employees are just as much a matter of public policy as the work that those employees are supposed to do. We don’t allow smoky backroom deals arrived at in collective bargaining to dictate the goals, structure, or existence of the public education system, so neither should we use that process to determine compensation and work condition policies.

What evidence is there that teachers unions have actually had negative effects on students and the education system? The research literature generally finds that unionization is associated with higher per-pupil costs and lower student achievement, but those findings are not very large and are sometimes inconsistent. A 1996 article by Caroline Hoxby in the Quarterly Journal of Economics is widely considered the most methodologically rigorous analysis of the issue. Claremont Graduate University professor Charles Kerchner described Hoxby’s study in a literature review prepared for the National Education Association as “the most sophisticated of the econometric attempts to isolate a union impact on the student results and school operations …” Hoxby finds that unionization is associated with higher student dropout rates as well as higher spending.

But the reality is that it is very hard to produce rigorous research on the effects of teachers unions on education. For one thing, teachers unions are powerful and active almost everywhere. Even in states without collective bargaining, the unions push state legislatures to put into law what is normally put into collective bargaining agreements. This is less than ideal for the unions, because they don’t collect dues in exchange for pushing through legislation like they can for representing members to achieve the same ends through collective bargaining. Unions operate these money-losing operations in right-to-work states to make sure that there is no meaningful policy variation on their key issues. They’d rather that we not discover that the world does not end without a mandatory step-and-ladder pay scale, fair dismissal procedures, and favorable work rules. The lack of policy variation hinders researchers, because outcomes are not likely to be very different where the policies are not very different.

But we don’t need a wealth of evidence on teachers unions specifically as long as we know about the effects of interest groups and recognize that teachers unions are indeed interest groups. Seeking to produce evidence on the effects of each interest group separately, especially when there are empirical challenges to doing so, is a bit like trying to prove that gravity operates in every room of a house. We could drop a bowling ball in each room to see if it hits the floor, but sometimes there are tables, couches, or beds in the way. If we don’t get the result we expected, it doesn’t mean that gravity only applies in certain places; it just means that research constraints prevent us from seeing in a particular situation what we know to be true in general.

In general, we know that interest groups advocate for the benefits of their members, even if it comes at the expense of others. We know that teachers unions are interest groups. And we know that the interests of teachers unions are not entirely consistent with the needs of students and taxpayers. Thus, teachers unions are likely to be negative forces for the education system and certainly should not be seen as helpful. The most rigorous research that does exist bears this out, but we also know this from our more general knowledge of how interest groups affect policy.

It is not currently practical to forbid the unionization of teachers, as we forbid the unionization of members of the armed forces. But if we want to limit the ability of teachers unions to advance their own interests at the expense of children, their families, and taxpayers, we need to consider ways of restricting their ability to engage in collective bargaining. Restricting collective bargaining would force teachers unions to pursue their interests through the legislative process, where competing interests might have a better chance to check their power. And forcing unions to operate through legislation rather than backroom collective-bargaining negotiations would improve transparency, which could also place a check on the unions’ ability to satisfy their own interests at the expense of others.

RDK: Jay Greene’s opening line, comparing teachers unions to the Tobacco Institute, is very telling about his overall analysis. He’s right, of course, that both are “interest groups,” but does he not see a massive difference between an entity that is devoted to getting more kids addicted to deadly cigarettes so they’ll be lifelong clients and a group representing rank-and-file teachers whose life’s work is educating children?

Greene complains that teachers unions have become “more militant in recent years.” But teacher strikes, which were quite common in the 1960s and 1970s, dropped 90 percent by the mid-1980s and are now, as one education report noted, essentially “relics of the past.” To the extent that teachers have rallied, it’s in response to unprecedented attacks on them in places like Wisconsin, where a half century of labor law was radically rewritten. Astonishingly, Greene would go further than Wisconsin Republicans and “return to the pre–collective bargaining era.”

Greene says providing teachers with better pay and benefits is bad for kids, but where is his evidence? Don’t better compensation packages attract brighter talent, or are the laws of supply and demand suddenly suspended when it comes to teachers?

Finally, Greene is correct to suggest that teacher and student interests are not perfectly aligned, but who are the selfless adults who better represent the interests of kids? The hedge fund managers who support charter schools and also want their income taxed at lower rates than regular earned income, thereby squeezing education budgets? Superintendents who sometimes junk promising initiatives for which they cannot take credit? I’d rather place my faith in the democratically elected representatives of educators who work with kids day in and day out.

JPG: Richard Kahlenberg places his faith in “democratically elected representatives of educators,” that is, the teachers unions, to safeguard the interests of children. Note that he does not say the democratically elected representatives of the people, or the voters. Kahlenberg is perfectly comfortable with a school system whose policies and practices are dominated by its employees, not by the citizens who pay for it or by the families whose children are compelled to attend it. Rather than seeing a system controlled by its employees as one characterized by self-interested adults maximizing their benefits at the expense of children, Kahlenberg sees it as the ideal.

In my ideal vision, we would put our faith in parents, not teachers unions, to represent the interests of children. If we had a robust system of parental school choice, I would have no problem with teachers unions and collective bargaining. In the private sector, if unions ask for too much, at least they experience the natural consequences of destroying their own companies or industries (to wit, the auto industry). But in the public sector, unions are almost entirely insulated from the consequences of making unreasonable demands, since governments never go out of business. Public sector unions can drive total revenue for their industry higher without any improvements in productivity simply by getting public officials to increase taxes.

Unfortunately, we lack a robust system of school choice and instead have to rely on democratic institutions, like school boards and state legislatures, to determine most school policies and practices. But unless we also restrict the collective bargaining rights of school employees, teachers unions will dominate the decisions of those democratic institutions, given their advantages in funding and organization, to distort elections and policy decisions.

Teachers unions almost certainly raise salaries and benefits, as Kahlenberg suggests, but that doesn’t necessarily attract better teachers if the salary schedule does nothing to reward excellence. Similarly, union-imposed dismissal procedures make it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers. The alignment that Kahlenberg sees between teachers unions’ desire to increase education spending and the interests of students would only be a real concordance if the unions facilitated the use of those funds in ways that actually improved outcomes.

Comment on this article
  • Sara Robertson says:

    Educator Unions at local, state and national level are doing amazing things re: teacher evaluation, education reform, tenure reform and working with administrators to come together on contracts that benefit all involved, especially the students. Teachers are working more hours, spending out of pocket and taking on additional workloads because they want their students to succeed. To not acklowledge the postitive gains teachers unions are making is ignorant. Stop labeling them as obstructionist and work with them at all levels to improve education for our students. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/nov/21/teachers-union-leader-says-battles-just-begun/

  • Stuart Buck says:

    “If collective bargaining were really a terrible practice for education, we should see stellar results where it does not occur: in the American South and in the charter school arena, for example. Why, then, aren’t the seven states that forbid collective bargaining for teachers (Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) at the top of the educational heap?”

    This is a really bad argument, for at least two reasons:

    1. Even assuming that state w/o collective bargaining have different policies otherwise as to teacher pay, tenure, etc., you wouldn’t expect states with such different demographics from Massachusetts to be at the “top” of the heap. The real question, in which social scientists would be interested, is whether those states would do better, the same, or possibly even worse if they allowed unionization.

    2. The argument betrays an ignorance of what is really happening in states without unionization. Mississippi doesn’t have collective bargaining, sure, but it has tenure for teachers written into state law. In Arkansas, only three districts have collective bargaining, but all the other districts have to have “Personnel Policy Handbooks” under state law, and someone who has reviewed those tells me that they look word-for-word like collective bargaining agreements. Also, a state law called the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act provides the equivalent of tenure.

    In Texas, which supposedly isn’t influenced by unions, it was just last year that the Attorney General declared it illegal for school districts to automatically deduct teacher paychecks to donate money to the Texas State Teacher Association’s political action committee. See https://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/opinions/50abbott/op/2010/htm/ga-0774.htm

    As one commentator pointed out, “How powerful is the TSTA? Powerful enough that it was able to persuade school districts to use their payroll departments to collect PAC donations out of teachers’ paychecks, in violation of state law. Meditate on that for a second: These weren’t union dues being deducted out of government employees’ paychecks, but PAC donations. This is the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency deducting contributions to the coal lobby’s PAC out of its employees’ paychecks — and this is in Texas, where the government unions are allegedly as defenseless as newborn babes in the woods. Texas’s teachers’ unions, like their counterparts across the country, have been extraordinarily effective in fighting most meaningful school-reform efforts, from vouchers to school choice to greater accountability measures — and all of this without collective-bargaining power.”

  • Bill Oldread says:

    I find it interesting that Richard invokes Albert Shanker to buttress his argument that Unions are interested in children and ed reform. Here is a quote from Shanker that pretty much says it all. “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

  • Al H. says:

    I must point out that there are different kinds of collective bargaining. Wages, hours, pension and health care contributions, tenure and dismissal methods, etc. Nobody that I know of has argued against wage negotiations–that’s what unions do–but when a teacher has high pay, low hour demands (6 classes a day like here in Austin and the teachers went bonkers when asked to teach 7), small classes (capped at 20 for most grades), can’t be dismissed for even the most egregious acts (one was caught fondling her children and simply got transferred to another school), doesn’t contribute to his/her benefit programs, etc., there has to be some action taken.

  • Mimi Stratton says:

    Jay Greene claims the research literature finds that unionization is associated with higher per-pupil costs and lower student achievement.

    Really? Because the Charles Kerchner literature brief referred to by Greene that sums up the research in this area says, “The debate about whether unions help or hinder student achievement rests on 16 cross-state comparative studies. Of these, two studies have captured attention and comment, partly because they come to opposite conclusions.”

    Greene mentions one of these studies, by Caroline Hoxby in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, and tries to leave the impression in this article that Kerchner holds the study in high regard. Greene neglects to mention that Kerchner asks why the study missed nearly a third of the districts in the country, and whether using only dropouts as a measure of student achievement is viable. And that was the most “sophisticated” of the two studies coming to a different conclusion than the other fourteen.

  • Tom says:

    “When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
    – Albert Shanker (1928 – 1997), self-described Socialist and former President of the AFT

    “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; (politically) it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”
    – Albert Shanker (1928 – 1997), self-described Socialist and former President of the AFT

    America’s teachers unions, particularly the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, they are the most organized and powerful voices in all areas of American social politics, not just education politics. Together these unions represent over 4.7 million dues paying members and have annual revenue approaching $250 million. These unions systematically block the reforms in both administrative systems as well as teacher quality, needed to reduce wasted tax dollars, and improve our nation’s schools so they may produce graduates better equipped to complete in a global economy. However, as the former president of the AFT said, their priorities are focused on dues-paying teachers, not on the students they teach. The NEA has what might be called a consulting division, it is a corps of some 3,000 so called directors making up UniServ. These directors communicate the union’s political messages to members and leaders in the field and assist union locals with collective bargaining efforts, often overwhelming the bargaining expertise of small town local school board members. Including the UniServ corps, the NEA alone employs a larger number of political organizers than the Democratic and Republican National Committees combined. As a matter of record, UniServ is the NEA’s single largest budget item as, on average, each member of this organization of consultants earns over $100k per year.
    The combined influence over what happens in America’s schools is formidable as I will illustrate. In every town and village the NEA/AFT are the well-funded major opponents of public funding for private schools where students might receive a better education. What are some of the primary specific reforms the unions resist?
    • Charter schools – These schools are primarily non-union. They still receive tax dollars but operate independently of the rules and regulations governing public schools. Their accountability is spelled out in a charter. These schools do not charge tuition but when they excel they often also receive private donations from benefactors. This is a threat to the NEA/AFT’s legalized monopoly.
    • Merit pay – The concept is logical to most people and is common in the private sector, but the departure from seniority based remuneration is anathema to the unions. Union contracts make it impossible to reward innovative, passionate teachers producing excellence in their students or to fire those who are so genuinely deserving.
    • Scholarships – This concept refers to providing funds, or vouchers, directly to families with students in failing schools so that they can attend a better performing public or private school elsewhere. Sometimes due to limited funds this is done in a lottery (a tragic scene in Waiting for Superman). This threatens the union’s source of revenue.
    • School Choice – Similar to scholarships families may select their school of choice without regard to geography or district. Also funded with vouchers or tax credits and also a threat to the union’s source of revenue.
    • Accountability – Many districts, when faced with the prospect of layoffs, would like to retain the most gifted teachers without regard to seniority. This is more despised by the unions than merit pay.
    In their fight against all, otherwise widely supported, professionally endorsed, educational reforms the NEA/AFT political juggernaut stoops to scare tactics and spews nonsense. For instance, their position on public funding of privately managed schools predicts these unintended consequences:
    • The demise of public education in America
    • Helps the affluent at the expense of poor children
    • Exacerbates racial and economic stratification
    • Violates the constitutional separation of church and state
    • Fosters extremist schools that would teach anti-democratic doctrines
    Considering union tactics and the issue of public employee collective bargaining, that last item on this list is particularly hypocritical and self-serving.
    This is not intended to demonize the teachers, the overwhelming majority of which do care deeply about the welfare of their students. My cautionary tale is not about them, it is about union organizers and union organizations themselves. I stress that I’m speaking of the soul of the institution and the union leadership not its constituent members. Like every union organization I have ever known, much of what they say and do is designed to support and perpetuate the best interests, and survival, of the union itself without regard to the actual dues paying members’ preferences. When approached about a grievance I have received as the plant HR Manager, with a shrug I have often been told by my employees, “I didn’t file that grievance.” And often the union had indeed filed the grievance without so much as informing the individual of their intentions or asking if the member agreed with the decision to do so.

    Unionization of teachers as public employees is problematic as “collective bargaining in public education is inconsistent with a democratic representative government. In teacher union bargaining, school board representatives – that is, government officials – negotiate public policies with one special interest group in a process from which other parties are excluded.” (Lieberman pg. xi) This departure from a democratic process of government was at one time recognized by labor leaders. Ironically, or maybe not, it was the state of Wisconsin, in 1959, that first allowed collective bargaining in government facilities. Furthermore, how blatantly unethical is it that many of the school boards are made up of current or former members of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers? A conflict of interest perhaps? Let’s examine the process. School board members (functioning as management in the private sector) are responsible for negotiating, in good faith, with teachers’ unions on behalf of taxpayers (the employer who pays the bills). So, education union members on local school boards negotiate compensation packages with fellow union members and the taxpayers pick up the tab, including the salaries of the board members themselves! Tony Soprano would love such a deal. To preserve and perpetuate this barefaced conflict of interest the NEA published a manual entitled “Electing Your Employer” describing how to influence and manipulate who get elected to the school board. Other than Governor Walker of Wisconsin who’s looking out for the taxpayer? Usually no one.
    Certainly state and local governments could enact legislation to insert some type of protections or procedural firewalls into this corrupt system. Why haven’t they? Where is the outcry from the regulatory happy Democrats? Where’s Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd? The absence of this legislation or even the issue in the public forum could be due in part to the enormous amount of money spent by the unions on campaign contributions to those public officials who see things the union way. That, and the fact that legislators feed at the same taxpayer funded trough. Right here in Michigan school board members failing to “see things the union’s way” have been subject to openly union funded recall campaigns. I quickly found over five such recall campaigns in Michigan in the past 5 -10 years. A sample:
    “The Romeo Community School Board recall effort is one of several similar efforts in 2009-2010 started by union organizers to punish school board members who vote to privatize some school functions as a way to save district funds.” (Detroit Free Press 4/23/2010)
    Those funds could have been allocated to delivering a better, higher quality, learning experience to the students. This is prime example of how the union mentality is simply “through the looking glass” and is in stark contrast to Demming’s principals and the way a business would be managed in the private sector where competition exists.
    Today the NEA and AFT combined represent 4.7 million members all of whom work for the taxpayers. The UAW, on the other hand, represents fewer than 377,000 workers. That’s all the represented workers at Detroit’s Big 3 yet they are only 8% of the size of the teachers unions. Is it any wonder these powerful unions wield such influence on Capitol Hill where thoughts of reelection perpetually dance through the heads of our elected representatives? In the last 40 years private sector union membership in America has fallen precipitously, as a percentage of the nonagricultural private sector labor force, union membership has dropped to 7.7% (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). During the same period the teachers’ unions have experienced phenomenal growth. Since 1961 membership in the NEA has increased from 766,000 to 3,200,000 members, an increase of over 400%, while the AFT has swelled from 70,821 members to the 1,500,00 paying dues today, and that’s an increase of 2,118%! Yes, that’s right, over two-thousand percent growth. This would explain their President Albert Shanker’s unapologetic acknowledgement of his loyalty to the interests of his dues paying members over those of the very children dependent upon them for an education.
    This growth has occurred simultaneously while all measurable statistics of student achievement have dropped to crises levels and increases in spending on public education have skyrocketed contributing to budget deficits across the land.
    And to secure those union interests, and perpetuate this legal monopoly, from 1989 – 2004 AFSCME, the AFT’s parent organization, donated nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections alone, with 98.5% of that going to Democrats (source: The Center for Responsive Politics). From 1990 to the present the NEA and its local state affiliates have donated a similar amount, just under $40 million, directly to politicians and PAC’s, predominantly to Democrats and their ideological ilk (see Table 1). Why? They want to keep their ox from being gored, or in other words, to be thrown from the gravy train. Government workers at every level have a self-interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments receive in revenue sharing. People in the “business of government” support the party of government. As Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute has chronicled for years, public unions are the country’s foremost advocates for increased taxes at all levels of government. Public unions operate differently from unions in the private sector who must bargain over limited profits. Competition from other business tempers the union’s wage demands. Governments earn no profits and have no competition (other than the privatization unions fight so vigorously). Public sector unions then just negotiate for more taxpayer dollars. And the beat goes on.
    Union contracts typically grant government employees gold-plated benefits far superior to the public sector at the cost of higher taxes and/or less spending on other priorities. Government employees at all levels win above-market total compensation. The average government employee enjoys better health benefits often with little or no co-pays, better pensions, better job security and an earlier retirement than the average private sector worker. While direct wages are not typically inflated at the local and state level they most certainly are at the federal level. When benefits are included in the total costs, federal employee compensation averages $123,000 annually, more than double the private sector average of $61,000. Some of the unpleasant alternatives to Governor Walker’s budget proposal, the one so unacceptable to the unions, were to deny Medicaid to 200,000 children currently receiving benefits and layoff up to 6,000 (low seniority) state employees. Those protesting the changes refused to contribute 5.8% of their pay to their own pension fund and pick up 12.6% of the cost of their health care premiums, merely a third of the average employee’s co-pay in the private sector. Unfortunately, Barack Obama, in his role as the POTUS, and a major beneficiary of union dollars “saw things the union way” and referred to Walker’s budget as “an assault on unions.”
    President Obama can pander to the unions and publicly decree the assault on public employee unions, but the statistics don’t support his claim. In January 2011 a union employee (no doubt) of the federal government’s Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported data showing that over the same 40 year period union membership in the private sector has dwindled to just 6.9%, among public employees it has swelled to 36%. Indeed, today most union members in the Unites States work for the government at some level and their absolute total exceeds that of private sector employees. In 1992, POTUS wanna be Ross Perot warned that this would soon come to pass due to the halls of congress being overrun with lobbyists in $600 loafers.
    If you think it’s far-fetched to suggest that the teachers’ unions play the role of political kingmaker, think again. The largest political campaign spender in America is not a megacorporation such as the much despised Wal-Mart, it’s not Microsoft, nor is it ExxonMobil. No, it’s not a Wall Street financial industry association like the American Bankers Association or the National Association of Realtors. It’s not even a labor federation, like the AFL-CIO. Unbelievably, if you combine the campaign spending of all those entities listed above it does not equal the vast sums of (taxpayer) money doled out to “supporters” in government office by the National Education Association, the public-sector labor union that represents some 2.3 million K–12 public school teachers and nearly another million education support workers (bus drivers, custodians, food service employees, etc.) and retirees. NEA members alone make up more than half of union members working for local governments in America, by far the most unionized segment of the U.S. economy.
    “The Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics joined forces last year to produce the first comprehensive database of political campaign spending at both the state and national levels. The results should open the eyes of policymakers and educators alike, as well as those involved in the wider world of domestic politics. In the 2007–08 election cycle, total spending on state and federal campaigns, political parties, and ballot measures exceeded $5.8 billion. The first-place NEA spent more than $56.3 million, $12.5 million ahead of the second-place group. That’s not all. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the smaller of the two national professional education unions, ranked 25th in campaign spending, with almost $12 million, while NEA/AFT collaborative campaigns spent an additional $3.4 million, enough to earn the rank of 123rd. All told, the two national teachers unions distributed $71.7 million on candidate and issue campaigns in California, Florida, Massachusetts and South Dakota. Millions more went to policy research to support the unions’ agenda” (Educationnext 2010).
    For unions and their membership this is money well-spent. In 2010 the Oregon Education Associate contributed $2 million and the Service Employees International Union coughed up another $1.8 million of the total $7 million raised in support of successful ballot proposals 66 & 67 which raised income taxes on both businesses and individual taxpayers by an estimated $727 million annually. Wow. That ROI in just one year, and every year thereafter, is over 10,000% for the special interest groups. Also in 2010 unions in Arizona were major contributors of money and campaign volunteers to another successful ballot measure to increase the state’s sales tax by 18% to 6.6%. Economists would point out that a sales tax increase hurts low income families the most. Still the unions did not disguise the fact that this was done to prevent threatened cuts in government spending. As the revenue flows in it is certain the unions will demand their cut. There were more, far too many more, examples available.
    Upon closer inspection it appears the POTUS is sometimes more “centered” and often a pretty smart fellow. In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower warned us of the burgeoning military industrial complex and years earlier on August 16, 1937 in a letter to Luther Steward, President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, President Roosevelt warned of the inherent conflict of interest represented by the very concept of a union of public employees. In his letter he wrote:
    “The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.
    All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
    Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”
    Simply stated, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Those aren’t my words, or even those of Governor Walker or Ron Paul, it was A.F.L.-C.I.O. President George Meany who said that in 1955. What Samuel Gompers and Walter Ruther had in mind in founding the labor movement was to get their members their fair slice of the pie, more of the profits they helped to create for their employers. But government workers don’t generate profits to be shared. They merely negotiate for more taxpayers’ money. When they strike leaving the busses idle, the roads unplowed or the garbage stinking at the curb they fail the public interest and bite the hand that feeds. F.D.R. considered this “unthinkable and intolerable.” While George Meany and the unions may have resisted the urge to organize public sector employees before 1959, the huge influx of dues paying members quickly changed the union movement’s position and public sector unions have become common. Consequently unions, and their coveted campaign dollars, which were initially in your pocket, can now demand from our elected representatives, laws and regulations that serve union and union members’ interests at the expense of the common good. So, in the end, the taxpayer loses any personal benefit or value from those tax dollars spent, while a new exploited 99% and an evil 1% is identified.
    While getting cheated or scammed by a public union should be enough to concern, or maybe even anger, Joe Taxpayer, let’s not lose sight of the heart of the issue with respect to the teachers’ unions. The education of Joe’s kids. For too many years too many children, and for the most part those most at risk, have been cheated. These children are not missing out on the birthright Ivy League education granted to the original hated 1%, they are being denied a basic fundamental education and skills without which they have no chance to survive in the rapidly changing global economy. So, it should thoroughly enrage Joe Taxpayer to know how the system has failed his kids and that their generation will have the dubious honor of being the first generation to be denied the American Dream en masse as, for the first time in American History, they do not “do better” than their parents’ generation.
    It’s all really very sad.
    The greed and malfeasance within America’s education systems is contributing to the collapse of what was intended to be a Great Society. I don’t think it is alarmist exaggeration to say something meaningful must happen to fix the problems in education if the nation is to survive as we have known and loved it.
    Researching and writing this report has left me feeling frustrated, disenfranchised and, although I am optimistic by nature, worried about the future of this great nation. The original hated 1% has nothing on the Corruptocrats situated throughout the other 99% at every level, public and private, and if our trend of producing intellectually inferior children continues we will go the way of other great cultures like the Romans’ and the Greeks’, now lost in the mists of time. Where is Diogenes when you need him?
    To restore a true, honest and transparent egalitarian democracy in this grand political science experiment known as the United States of America will require the concern and commitment of every citizen. Everyone must shed their apathy, put down their hand-held device and seek out and support candidates at every level of government, from your neighborhood association to the POTUS, who advocate the dismantling of corruption and cronyism in the education collectives, city councils, congress, the White House and at every level in between. Listen, learn where candidates get their money and why, attend school board meetings, support the deserving candidate committed to the greater good and remember the words of Tip O’Neil: “All politics is local.”

  • Mark Halpert says:

    Chastising teachers unions for representing teachers

    Wouldn’t the same argument be used for Wall Street Companies, Charter School Companies and Private School Consortiums

    The tobacco industry is selling poison, the corn industry has its’ challenges and teachers unions have little in common with either of the above

    The problem with teachers unions may well be that management has not done its job to make sure we reward excellent teachers and allow bad teachers to either improve or go elsewhere

    Over simplification is dangerous

    We need to get to the core issues — which are kids learn differently than they used to, many students struggle with vision and attention issues, and our teachers do not teach the way the students always learn and we rarely address vision and attention issues

    Not to mention the increasing challenge of trying to help more and more students whose parents cannot read themselves — Houston we have a problem, but teachers unions are only a part of the problem

  • […] Richard D. Kahlenberg and Jay P. Greene. Unions and the Public Interest. EducationNext, 12 (1). http://educationnext.org/unions-and-the-public-interest. […]

  • steve mccrea says:

    I work in the private sector. There are some teachers who get child care and I (because I’m child-free) don’t. I don’t have collective bargaining to stand up for me… I just look out for me… That makes me able to negotiate … Dennis Littky points out that teacher training ought to be like teaching students (can we differentiate the lesson and individualize the instruction?). So why not focus on what’s best for students? See Littky’s youtube presentations…. “dennis Littky poptech” and “littky tedxtalks” I look forward to correspondence …. [ union-imposed dismissal procedures make it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers.] In a private school, this is generally not a problem..

  • jeffrey miller says:

    Stuart, you might rethink your condemnation. You’re not helping your cause with, “The argument betrays an ignorance of what is really happening in states without unionization.” That’s because what’s really happening is that in those southern states, is that test scores are among the lowest in the nation. You fitfully try to say: but, but, and all those little exceptions just don’t add up.

    “The real question, in which social scientists would be interested, is whether those states would do better, the same, or possibly even worse if they allowed unionization.” May be. But Stuart, that experiment cannot be run for obvious political reasons. We work with the data we have and do our best with quasi-experiments.

    Tom, impressive screed. “Union contracts make it impossible to reward innovative, passionate teachers producing excellence in their students or to fire those who are so genuinely deserving.” Not correct. http://denverprocomp.dpsk12.org/ You are incorrect on a number of other issues but because your post took a couple of days for me to read, I’ll just summarize my thoughts by remarking that you and Greene have created fact-free opinion pieces that masquerade as insightful analyses.

    In fact, in Denver, the union was a key ally in this effort to create more teacher accountability. And, I became a teacher in Denver in large part because of the ProComp program. And, I never have joined the union. Oh, and unions have issues but so do the alternatives so rarely discussed by those like you with a political agenda.

  • Liz says:

    Tom, thanks for your time and the excellent overview on the evolution of the NEA and AFT.

  • Michael says:

    As a union member in Pennsylvania and my middle school building rep, we went on strike one winter even after months of binding arbitration rejected by the school board. over salaries…nope that was settled long before school started? Benefits? Nope..We struck over the board allowing the private school bus company to set the schedule and force a move from a research supported true middle school program to one that did away with the program. The heart of it was that in a true middle school…all the sixth grade teachers teach all the sixth graders. this is a huge advantage in getting to know kids and creating a team approach to planning and working with parents. The bus company wanted to make more money and compress the schedule which would have meant longer periods and grade to grade cross overs. After years of increasing test scores, happy parents, students and teachers the board wanted to bow to local money interests. We struck for six weeks and in the end the county judge had the police pick up all the union officers and all the board members and had them brought to his chambers. His order was no one leaves until this is over. It got over in slightly more than 24 hours. We won but it was a pyrrhic victory because we would lose two years later and no one was happy but the board and the bus contractor. With no union at least in this little part of the state, no one was looking out for kids.

  • jeffrey miller says:

    Thanks Michael for reminding the powers that be there are more variables to consider. My school tried to go to a more humane schedule but we got overruled by the school bus driver’s union. My school is a high-profile 6-12 public magnet and even though we lost to the drivers, we have been able to keep our 6th and 7th grade students and teachers intact as cohesive units despite an early start at 735 am. The benefits of keeping those grades together are truly worth the battle. We will fight for a more humane schedule another day.

  • Jerry says:

    Until parents determine the choice of school and the money (all of it, on a per pupil basis) follows the student to the private, non-profit, or public school of their choice, the k-12 education system in this country will be irreparably broken. Issues such as “politicized” school boards, union influence, teacher competance, merit pay, etc. all disappear when I can take my voucher (total per pupil funding) and go to another school.

    For instance, I don’t worry about any of the internal issues if I’m unhappy with the quality of my Chrysler product, I just go buy a Honda (or whatever).

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