‘Students Learn Less in States With Stronger Teachers’ Unions’


State Teacher Union Strength and Student Achievement

A new scholarly paper shows that, in states where teacher union bosses have the most dues money to spend (typically because they wield the power to force school employees to fork over dues or fees as a job condition), students “have lower test scores than in states with low dues and spending.” Image: blog.militaryfamily.org

While grass-roots opponents of compulsory unionism tend to focus on the simple unfairness of laws and legislation under which the individual employee’s Right to Work is contingent on forking over dues or fees to a union even if he or she would never voluntarily join it.  But academics who study the Right to Work issue tend to focus on how compulsory unionism affects businesses, consumers, and taxpayers, rather than the individual employee.

Fortunately, the best available evidence indicates again and again that what’s in the best interest of the individual employee with regard to labor policy is also in the best interest of a wide range of other citizens.

In K-12 public education, for example, teacher union bosses routinely wield their monopoly-bargaining power to perpetuate “single salary schedules” that frequently result in below-market pay for teachers with low seniority, teachers qualified for hard-to-fill positions in subject areas like calculus, physics, chemistry and English as a second language, and many other teachers who do an especially good job.  Compulsory unionism adds insult to injury by forcing such teachers to bankroll the union that is harming them economically.

A new study by University of Chicago law professor John Lott and University of Florida economist Lawrence Kenny (see the link above) adds to the mountain of evidence that compulsory unionism hurts schoolchildren, parents and taxpayers as well as teachers.

After adjusting for important variables related to taxpayers’ input into public education and parents’ level of education, Lott and Kenny conclude that “students learn less in states with stronger teachers’ unions.”

Lott and Kenny measure the “strength” of teacher unions according to the dues collected per teacher and expenditures per teacher.  (Their universe includes all K-12 public schoolteachers in a state, not just the union members.)  Of course, teacher unions overwhelmingly collect dues from a higher share of teachers and collect more dues per unionized teacher in states where labor laws authorize the forced extraction of union dues and fees from teachers as a condition of employment.

Lott and Kenny looked at standardized tests taken by 4th and 8th graders in reading and math.  Regardless of the subject or grade level, and regardless of whether they focused on absolute scores or improvement between 4th and 8th grade, they found that “an increase in teacher union dues and expenditures leads to lower student test scores.”

Teacher union officials who are made powerful by coercive state labor laws have a potentially detrimental impact on schoolchildren, parents and taxpayers not only in contract negotiations but also in state capitals, where union lobbyists typically seek to divert a larger and larger share of public education expenditures into programs that do little or nothing to help school districts attract and retain talented teachers.