The Impact of Unionism on the Quality of Public Education
One of the least examined and understood
aspects of the decline in the quality of public education in America is
unionism. There are several reasons for this.
One of the least obvious is that most
critics of teacher unionism are conservatives. When conservative critics of teacher unionism address the topic, the focus of their concern is not with union impact on education. Conservative criticism of
teacher unionism, particularly of the National Education Association, tends
to focus on the union's social and ideological goals rather than the much
more profound and pervasive negative influence the union, operating as
a union, has on the quality of public education.
There are certainly ample reasons for
liberals to also criticize the teacher unions but these unions are such
an integral part of the liberal establishment's political base that such
criticism is muted by political concerns, having little or nothing to do
with objective intellectual and academic considerations.
This is not to say that the political
influence of the NEA and its state affiliates on issues other than education
is not substantial and perhaps in many ways harmful but these manifestations
of teacher union political power do not have a direct impact on the quality
of public education.
Of all the changes which have taken
place in public education in the last three decades, none has had a more
profound effect than the unionization of public school employees - particularly
Yet, in the study that launched the
present public concern about the quality of public education, A Nation
At Risk. there is not a single word even acknowledging the fact that public
school teachers are members of labor unions.
The reason studies of public education
do not include the impact of unionism is simple. The teacher unions are
the major players in the education establishment. They are so powerful
a force that no study can have acceptability in the education establishment
without their participation, and they refuse to participate in any study
which includes the impact of unions. Perhaps even more important, the teacher
unions' political power is so great that it is virtually impossible for
government sponsored research to deal with the question of the impact of
unionism on education because political fear makes it unlikely that the
research will be funded.
This ability of the unions to dictate
in advance the outcome of education issues because of their status in the
education establishment is not limited to studies on education. It manifests
itself in many other fields including appointments to boards and commissions
and participation in political advisory groups.
The most common and accepted measure
of education achievement is the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score. These
test scores began to decline in the early 1960's and continued to decline
for about twenty years. Since then, they have leveled off at an average
slightly higher than their lowest level. Coincidental with the decline
in SAT scores, the National Education Association began the process of
converting itself from a broad-based professional organization of educators
into a militant teacher union.
Between 1963 and 1981, composite SAT
scores fell from 980 to 890, a decline of 10% while teacher union membership
increased by 100% from 963,720 to 1,977,370.
There are undoubtedly many reasons
for this decline in SAT scores. Many more people are completing high school
and are considering going on to college. As a result, there are increased
percentages of students who are taking the tests. Because in every population
there are some who are smarter, or at least better test takers, than others,
whenever you increase the percent of the population taking a test the average
score is going to fall.
Decline in SAT Scores
The question remains
as to whether the unionization of teachers had any influence on this national
loss of education competence. In a recent study, Sam Peltzman, an economics
professor at the University of Chicago, said:
found that the growth of teacher unionization has contributed to the student
test score decline. Before 1960 hardly any teachers were unionized. In
the 1960's, the growth of teacher unionization was very rapid. By the end
of that decade over half the teachers were unionized, and today about three-fourths
belong to one or the other of the major national teachers unions. This
early growth was also accompanied by pressure on state legislatures to
grant unions new rights, including the right to strike. These days teachers'
strikes are an annual rite of Fall. In 1960, public employees didn't have
the right to strike.
success of these efforts was uneven. Early victories in New York City and
New York State spread to a few urban centers and then beyond. But there
are still a few states in which teachers are not unionized. By using state-by-state
student test score data, I have looked at what happened to student achievement
in those places where the push for teacher organization was most successful
most quickly. In these areas, student achievement tended to deteriorate
more than average.
should not be too surprising. Unions have traditional concerns such as
job security, promotions, and pay differential rules that may be in conflict
with some educational goals. Union-style job security, for example, is
not compatible with flexibility in replacing mediocre or poor teachers.
deterioration of student performance did not occur because teacher unions
are indifferent or hostile to student achievement; the opposite may be
more nearly true. But union concerns and education concerns aren't always
Unionism is harmful
to the quality of public education in a variety of ways, some obvious,
some not. It is important to keep in mind that these are problems caused
by unions, not by some extraneous aspect of union activity, like their
positions on social and political issues.
growth began in the early 1960's when the National Education Association,
in reaction to the American Federation of Teachers' victory in New York
City, adopted a more aggressive stance in order to protect teachers from
"the union." Until that time, the NEA had been a broad-based professional
association of educators which included teachers, administrators, professors
of education and virtually anyone else with a professional interest in
One of the major
factors in the growth of the NEA as a union was the adoption of a policy
of unified dues in 1974. Prior to that several state affiliates had already
adopted a unified dues policy. Before unified dues, it was possible for
a teacher to belong to a local classroom teachers' association without
also being a member of a state or national association. Under unified dues,
in order to belong to the local association a teacher was also required
to belong to both the national organization and its state affiliate. This
greatly increased the financial resources of the national organization.
The first and
most important influence of unionism on education is collective bargaining.
The growth of unionism in education coincided with passage of state laws
giving teacher unions monopoly bargaining privileges. This gave the unions
the power to demand recognition as bargaining agents and exclusive representation
over all teachers in the newly formed bargaining units.
Why is collective
bargaining in itself harmful? First of all, it destroys the appropriate
role of the school board and school administration in school governance.
Teacher union collective bargaining contracts are not limited to compensation
issues. They also cover "terms and conditions of employment" issues.
laws which attempt to limit the scope of teacher collective bargaining
preserve certain matters as "management rights" but then undermine this
intent by requiring negotiations on the "impact" of these policies. It
is virtually impossible to separate certain "terms and conditions of employment"
or the "impact" of the policies from the policies themselves. This gives
the union, through a collectively bargained contract, the power to dominate
almost every aspect of school policy.
In the normal
course of events, public school policies concerning subjects like assignment
and transfer, curriculum development, text book selection and disciplinary
policy, to name a few, should be considered by school boards separately
from policies about teacher compensation. Including them in union contracts
makes this impossible. Because the cost implications of union contracts
usually overshadow these concerns, these other policies cannot be given
adequate attention when included in the agreement. There is also a strong
tendency, especially in times of austere budgets for school management,
to trade-off such policy control for financial concessions from the unions.
It is characteristic
of the negotiation process to make concessions at the last minute. As a
result, it is all too common that agreements on union contracts are reached
at the last minute. The school board finds itself called into an emergency
session to consider a contract that will substantially influence almost
every public school policy for the length of the contract - usually two
or three years - without adequate opportunity for consideration and without
any opportunity for input from other interest groups in the community who
have a legitimate interest in school policies.
The unions' other
major role in employment relationship, aside from contract negotiation
and enforcement, is representing members in adverse actions. Unions spend
an inordinate amount of time defending the employment interests of teachers
who are chronic malcontents or incompetents. In some areas, unions are
so powerful that school boards and administrators have virtually given
up on the idea of getting rid of incompetents. This is not to say that
more than a very small minority of teachers are incompetent. It only takes
one or two incompetents to seriously damage education as students move
through the system.
nature of unions also presents problems for education quality. Unions resist
efforts to determine pay scales based on performance or on the scarcity
of job skills. According to the Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary
Education Policy of the 20th Century Fund,
organization - the unions and professional association - to which teachers
belong have protected their weakest members rather than winning rewards
for their strongest.
collective bargaining process, moreover, has not only made it difficult
to encourage promising teachers or dismiss poor ones, it has forced many
of the best to leave teaching for more financially rewarding work. The
result is that the quality of teaching suffers."
In many states,
the collective bargaining laws also gave the unions the right to force
teachers to either join the union or pay an agency shop fee to the union
as a condition of continued employment. Many outstanding teachers decided
to leave the profession rather than to compromise their principles by joining
or supporting a union.
influence of collective bargaining that has had a profound influence on
education is the question of strikes by teachers. There is no doubt that
the advent of unionism and collective bargaining was accompanied by a dramatic
increase in strike activity.
study of all public sector strikes between 1958 and 1980 shows that passage
of a compulsory public sector collective bargaining law correlates to a
fourfold increase in the number of strikes against government.
in Michigan there was one strike between 1958 and 1964. The legislation
was enacted in 1965, and there were 759 strikes between 1966 and 1980.
That's an average of 50 strikes a year -- a substantial increase.
there were 72 strikes in the period between 1958 and 1969, an average of
six per year. The law, Act 195. was enacted in 1970 and there were 767
strikes between 1971 and 1980, an average of 76 a year; more strikes per
year than in the entire ten years before the bill was enacted.
These are the
extreme examples, but during the entire period covered by this study, in
no state did passage of a compulsory public sector collective bargaining
bill result in a decrease in strikes against government.
lost a substantial amount of their status and authority in the community
by striking. It is likely that this is the case whether or not the individual
teacher has participated in a strike or whether a school district has itself
had a strike. The image of striking teachers is a frequent topic of editorial
cartoons dealing with education issues. The first thought that comes to
mind for many people when asked about teacher unions is not pay, but strikes.
Teachers who disavow strikes or who refuse to participate in them have
been substantially harmed by those who strike.
There is no question
that a strike by teachers has a negative impact on the quality of education.
In 1981, a study covering a decade looked at 46 school districts in Pennsylvania
where strikes occurred and compared them to 88 districts of comparable
size where strikes did not occur. It found that strikes had a negative
impact on educational achievement, as measured by the Educational Quality
Assessment (EQA), for a period of two years after the strike. This is tragic
in any case, but is particularly harmful to juniors and seniors whose college
entrance scores might be affected by strikes.
In addition to
the direct impact on educational achievement, strikes impact on education
by undermining the authority of teachers. Most teacher strikes are illegal.
How can a teacher expect students to obey the rules when, if they don't
get what they want, they strike?
are also harmful to the quality of the school work environment. The teacher
unions realize that a strike is more of a political than an economic baffle.
They know that to win the political battle, they must characterize school
board members and senior administration officials in such a way as to destroy
public confidence in their leadership. This results in bitterness, which
lasts long after the strike has occurred, making it difficult for the various
components of education to work well together.
It must also
he mentioned that because the unions have done such a good public relations
job of placing blame for strikes on school management, the concessions
made to avoid a strike are more harmful in the long run to the quality
of public education than the strikes they are intended to prevent.
has also harmed education by putting so much of the focus of education
issues on money.
Part of the problem
here is a societal one. We, as a society, measure success by money. Whether
it is a six figure income, a $50,000 car or a $500,000 house, it becomes
the measure of success and this appeals to the unions.
would not contend that our local schools were superior because we paid
teachers an average of $100,000, or that we purchased our school buses
from Mercedes Benz or that we spent $50 million on a new elementary school.
Yet, I am unaware
of any proposal by unions to improve the quality of education by reducing
its cost. In fact, time and time again, any effort to reduce spending on
education has been met by union insistence that you cannot reduce the cost
without hurting the quality. When teacher unions strike for more money,
they invariably tell the public that they don't want to do it, but that
they have to "for the children."
All of this is
hog-wash! Education spending differs widely throughout the country as does
education performance. In 1993, per pupil spending ranged from a high of
$10,561 in New Jersey to a low of $3,128 in Utah. At the same time, average
SAT scores ranged from a high of 1,103 in Iowa to a low of 838 in South
A careful look
at the state-by-state comparisons of per pupil spending and SAT scores
reveals that there may be a correlation between spending and performance.
Some of the highest test scores are achieved in states that spend less
than average on education. Of the top ten states in per pupil spending,
only one is in the top ten SAT scores, and all the rest are below the national
average. Of the bottom ten states in per pupil spending, four are in the
top ten SAT scores, and none are below the national average.
Looking at it
another way, only one of the top ten SAT score states was in the top ten
per pupil spending, and most of them were below the national average. Of
the bottom ten SAT score states, most were above the national average in
per pupil spending.
between spending and performance is really inconclusive. According to figures
from the Education Commission of the States, per pupil spending, adjusted
by an interstate cost-of-living factor and changes in the consumer price
index, peaked in several states during the last decade. In some of those
states, SAT scores declined and in others they increased. Using these adjusted
figures, per pupil spending in sixteen of the states was higher in 1992
than in any year in the decade. Average SAT scores declined in nine of
these states and increased in seven.
of union focus on money as the measure of education is its failure to apply
some of the very basic principles of economics. It is generally true that
the more something costs, the less people buy of it. It is also generally
true that when the cost of one factor in production is increased, other
factors are substituted for it. For years the unions have been operating
on the assumption that the demand for education and teaching services was
inelastic. This is proving not to be the case. According to Mary Fulton,
a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, "We're seeing,
as we did in the '70s, a growing anti-tax movement that is being played
out in public education."
problem for education is not so much the absolute amount of money spent,
but the way that union influence has made spending the measure of all things
to the detriment of other factors that are at least as important.
One of those
factors which shows up frequently in studies of schools that achieve above
average results with below average spending is parental and community involvement
in the schools. In this area, teacher unionism deserves a severe indictment.
There is ample
evidence that community and parental involvement in the schools is essential
to successful education. Yet unions, whether intentionally or not, through
collective bargaining, tend to exclude the community from the schools.
Union contracts frequently provide that a teacher may not be required to
meet with a parent without a union representative present. They also provide
that teachers may not be required to stay after school to work with the
students or to assist in school activities. These provisions are generally
intended to protect teachers, but are, all too often, used by the union
to bully them into reducing community involvement. A teacher who stays
after school to work with students who are falling behind, after all, sets
a bad example. If it is not stopped, this sort of behavior will come to
be expected by all teachers despite the contract provisions protecting
Even though I
said above that teacher union positions on political and ideological issues
were not directly related to their impact on the quality of public education,
the fact that these unions are so political does have an impact.
The teacher unions,
like most public sector unions but even more so, are political institutions
in several different ways. It is important to understand all of these political
dimensions in order to fully comprehend the impact of this on the quality
of public education.
are first political because they become certified as the monopoly representative
of all teachers in a collective bargaining unit through a political process
- a certification election. In order to win a certification election, the
unions must convince the majority of the teachers that they need union
representation - that, absent union representation their employer, the
school board, and ultimately the public, will not treat them well, or at
the very least that they will be somehow better off if they are represented
by a union. Unions cannot conduct efforts along these lines without raising
concerns, founded or not, about the integrity and good will of both elected
and appointed management.
unions are political because their own leaders are elected. Once union
power has been established through recognition as the monopoly representative,
those who have the grandest view of what the union can accomplish, or perhaps
more accurately, the most negative view of their employment situation,
tend toward leadership positions. In their competition for leadership,
they vie with each other to over promise future benefits from union representation
under their leadership and to escalate the rhetoric against school management.
This union politicizing
influence is reaching into the classroom. In Montgomery County, Maryland,
the teacher union instigated a campaign in which teachers refused to write
letters of recommendation to colleges unless the students' parents wrote
letters to the school board demanding increased spending on education,
and in California, the unions organized class projects in which students
wrote letters to the Governor protesting cuts in the education budget.
are political in the external sense in their activity on behalf of candidates
for public office. Much of the attention on teacher union political activity
focuses on the major races like president and governor, but a very significant
amount of their political activity is devoted to elections for boards of
education through which they hope to determine in advance the outcome of
the collective bargaining process. Again, in these activities, they are
frequently in the position of denigrating incumbent school board members
and administrations with which they disagree.
All of this political
activity serves to create a situation that is destructive of both teacher
morale and public confidence. It cannot help but to have a negative impact
on public education.
A further influence
of unionism on the quality of public education comes from the resistance
of the unions to every proposed reform which would weaken union power and
prerogatives. Union opposition to education reform is motivated by several
With the competition
between the NEA and the AFT, each union has been afraid to embrace reforms
which might give their competition the opportunity to organize within their
jurisdictions. Union opposition to reforms such as teacher evaluation,
competency testing, recertification, changes in tenure rules, etc. stems
from concern that union members who fear that they will fail such tests
and evaluations will seek succor from a competing union.
The unions also
oppose reforms that are contrary to the union's self interest as an organization.
Anything that would lessen the power of the union or reduce the union's
membership is automatically opposed. This is the central reason for union
opposition to any proposals which would introduce competition into public
education. The unions realize that because of political influence, their
ability to organize public education is greatly enhanced, but that they
have virtually zero ability to organize in private education. Anything
that would move students, and therefore teaching jobs, from the public
to the private sector meets strenuous union resistance.
It must be noted
that the unions are pragmatic in their opposition to reform. Initially,
they oppose reform until the demand for it becomes so great that further
resistance is impossible. Then they embrace the reform, so long as they
This is not an
entirely bleak picture. There are many signs of hope on the horizon for
real improvement in public education despite union opposition. The most
important sign of hope is that just mentioned above. Some reforms are being
accepted and union insistence on controlling them is not always successful.
Some genuine education reforms are empowering teachers, something that
unions always said they wanted to do. These newly empowered teachers
are discovering, however, that the union is an obstacle to their success.
Some good examples
of this include the movements toward private practice teaching and charter
schools where teachers really begin to control their destiny. Aside from
the union fear of these reforms because of the introduction of competition
into the system, teachers in these endeavors have shown little or no interest
in unionism. No wonder the unions oppose them.
reform that is bringing market forces to bear on education is contracting
the management of schools and in some cases entire school districts to
private, for-profit companies.
A further sign
of hope is the fact that some light is finally being shed upon the teacher
unions. It was an article in the June 7, 1993, edition of Forbes entitled
"The National Extortion Association? Suffer the little children: How the
National Education Association corrupts our public schools," which seems
to have broken the dam. Several revealing studies have been published since
In November 1993,
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy issued "Michigan Education Special
Services Administration: The MEA's Money Machine." This is a report on
"How the Michigan Education Association uses school funds to support its
political agenda," which raised embarrassing questions about the operation
in that state.
In December 1993,
Indiana Policy Review issued "Inside the ISTA Payroll." This is a study
of the salary structure of the Indiana State Teachers Association/NEA,
which caused considerable embarrassment for the management of the union.
In February 1994,
the Golden State Center issued "The California Teachers Association: Power
Politics vs. Education Reform." This analysis of the political operation
of the California Teachers Association/NEA tore the thin veneer off any
claim they may have had to objectivity. This is billed as the first in
a series of studies by the Golden State Center on the CTA.
of hope on the horizon is the emergence and dramatic growth of independent
professional educator organizations. These groups, which reject the adversarial,
confrontational and exclusionary policies of the unions are flourishing
in many states.
A recent example
of the union's problem comes from Fairfax, Virginia, where a merit pay
plan was adopted despite strong union opposition. When finally, under continued
union pressure, the merit pay plan was abandoned, hundreds of teachers
who had been receiving merit pay left the NEA affiliate to form a separate
independent professional organization.
organizations have become so much of a concern to the National Education
Association that at its 1993 convention, it revealed a plan to attack them.
Such open attention is ample proof that the union sees them as a real threat.
It is no coincidence
that this plan to attack the independent organizations was revealed at
the same convention that approved a reopening of the merger talks between
the NEA and the AFT. The NEA had gotten away for decades with the charade
of posing as the "professional alternative" to the teacher union - the
AFT. With the prospect of a merger in sight, union officialdom undoubtedly
realized that these independent organizations would become an even more
attractive alternative for teachers who reject union ideology.
Site based management
also poses some very real problems for the teacher unions. The unions have
been saying for years that their goal was to empower teachers - and the
teachers believed it -when, in fact, their goal was to empower the union.
True empowerment of teachers is a threat to the unions and the unions know
In Indiana, after
the legislature enacted a plan establishing school councils, the union
sent instructions to its contract negotiators saying that in their next
contract they must insist on an agency shop clause - compulsory payment
of union fees - because when the school council plan was implemented, many
teachers would see the union as an obstacle to success and decide to quit.
These instructions to negotiators also included a demand for a contract
clause giving the union the right to appoint all school employee, parent
and community representatives on the school council; another example of
how unions seek to control reforms they cannot successfully oppose.
union power depends on perception and deception. The unions maintain their
political power in three different ways. First, teacher unions gain political
power through the vast financial resources they control as a result of
their monopoly status. These resources are used in a variety of ways to
influence political outcomes. The unions sponsor political action committees
with which they provide direct support to candidates and causes. They also
maintain an army of highly trained, well paid political operatives which
they can put into the field on short notice to influence elections.
though teachers are less than two percent of the population and surveys
have shown that a very large minority of teachers do not share the union's
left leaning political views, those teachers who are union zealots are
highly motivated and well educated. As volunteers, even a small cadre of
such activists can have a substantial influence on the outcome of a political
The third, and
perhaps largest source of union political influence, is a question of perception.
When the teacher unions endorse candidates, they proclaim them as the "education"
candidates. The typical voter, not realizing the negative impact of unionism
on education, or that these so-called "education" candidates are, in reality,
those who are committed to maintaining the union's stranglehold, frequently
vote for these candidates thinking that they are voting for better public
All of the information
that is becoming available about the teacher unions will undoubtedly make
it much more difficult for them to continue with this charade.
There is already
some evidence that teacher union power is eroding because of this better
public understanding of their role in the decline in the quality of public
In April 1994,
the Michigan legislature enacted a bill, despite vociferous union opposition,
which rolled back the scope of teacher union monopoly bargaining and put
teeth into the law against teacher strikes.
In April 1995,
the Indiana legislature enacted a bill, over a governor's veto, to protect
teachers who are not union members from being forced to support a union
as a condition of employment.
are underway in several different states.
It can't be stressed
enough that being anti-union is not being anti-teacher. The founder of
the Public Service Research Council, Carol Applegate, was a career public
school teacher. Many of the Council's strongest supporters are public school
teachers, and the Council maintains very good relationships with organizations
of teachers all across the country who are fighting against union control
of public education.
A careful examination
of the role of unions might bring one to the conclusion that rather than
saying that being anti-union is not being anti-teacher, it would be more
correct to say that being anti-union is being pro-teacher.
is one of America's greatest strengths. Americans want and deserve top
quality schools for the amount of money they invest in education. A well
informed public will insist that their political leaders reclaim control
of their schools as a necessary step toward restoring their quality.