Like clockwork, you can be sure that every month or so teachers unions will be singled out as the cause of all the ills afflicting public schools. The latest is the claim that “saving a child’s education” can only come when union rules are eliminated (“The Scandal of K-12 Education” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 5).
Yet the most recent evidence refutes that charge. Detroit has a bigger share of students in charter schools than any other city except New Orleans, with for-profit companies operating about 80 percent of them. But only half the charters outperform Detroit’s traditional public schools, about half perform roughly the same, and a very small number underperform. These distinctions are noteworthy because almost all charter schools lack teachers unions. If teachers unions are the villain, then all charter schools in Detroit without teachers unions should be posting far better outcomes than traditional public schools there. But they aren’t.
The truth is that teachers unions are not responsible for differences in student performance. I’m not saying they are free of all sins, but there are other factors far more responsible. For example, in Alabama, which has weak teachers unions, Hispanic fourth-graders are reading more than two grade levels below Hispanic fourth-graders in Florida, which also has weak teachers unions. Clearly there is more to the story than teachers unions.
Charter schools that outperform traditional public schools do so because of self-selection. Parents apply for their children’s admission and agree to abide by rules. Their involvement is likely the most important factor in how much their children learn. Traditional public schools remain the schools of last resort, legally required to enroll almost all who show up at their door and legally constrained in expelling miscreants.
No matter how much evidence is presented, however, I expect the attack on teachers unions to continue unabated. It’s so easy to blame them.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.