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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

What Lies Ahead for Teachers’ Unions After Janus?

By Guest Blogger — March 14, 2018 4 min read

This week’s guest blogs feature Katharine Strunk and Josh Cowen of Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaboration (EPIC). They’ll be joined by University of Washington’s Dan Goldhaber, Brown’s Matt Kraft, USC’s Brad Marianno, and Cornell’s Michael Lovenheim throughout the week as they discuss teachers’ unions and teacher labor market reforms.

Much has been written in recent days about the implications of Janus v. AFSCME for teachers’ unions should the Supreme Court overturn precedent that unions can charge non-members for their “fair share” of the cost of collective bargaining representation (see here, here, and here, for examples). Even while we debate what the potential loss in membership (and revenue) might mean for teachers’ associations nationwide, six states have implemented right-to-work laws that prohibit mandatory membership dues collection since 2012. Unions in these six states are currently navigating the waters of post-right-to-work organizing, joining a collection of 22 other states who already have such laws in place (many since the 1950s). However damaging a Janus ruling might be to union organizing, the post-Janus world is not unchartered territory for teachers’ unions.

In fact, the political trade winds have been blowing in opposition to teachers’ unions for some time and in ways that extend beyond membership dues. For example, the Obama administration was, in some ways, a chink in the armor of teachers’ unions’ traditional Democrat support. Teachers’ unions found a president and education secretary with an agenda squarely focused on improving teacher quality even if it meant taking policy positions that ran contrary to long-held union stances on teacher compensation and performance evaluation. Of course, they now face a Republican presidential administration more favorable to school choice and an education secretary who, at least according to the National Education Association (NEA), has “made a career trying to destroy neighborhood public schools.”

So what’s a teachers’ union to do? Well, to some extent they might just need to ride out the storm until political trade winds shift again. As one union leader told me in a recent interview, “The pendulum will swing back.”

But we should also not discount unions’ ability to adapt their political strategies to find influence even when the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Let me give an example:

In a recent study, I used data from the 2010, 2012, and 2014 federal election cycles to explore the NEA’s involvement in federal politics. I outlined how often NEA-supported candidates win federal elections and how often their favored federal policies are enacted in a time when their traditional Democrat allies ceded control of the House, Senate, and presidency.

As do many interest groups, the NEA rates lawmakers on an A-F scale, granting higher grades to congressional members whose votes are most frequently aligned with NEA priorities. I define NEA allies as those who receive A and B grades and foes as those who receive D and F grades (There were very few lukewarm C grades).

Teachers’ unions have long found friendship among Democrats (with the exception of some liberal education reformers who are supportive of Obama-era education policies) so we might expect that as Democrat lawmakers were ousted during the recent wave of Republican victories, so were the NEA’s allies. The numbers tell a more nuanced story. During the 2009-10 congressional session, the NEA held a majority of allies in the House and Senate at 61 percent and 59 percent, respectively. After the slew of Republican victories in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, the NEA still held a majority of allies (albeit by a slim margin), at 51 percent in the House and 53 percent in the Senate. NEA allies were certainly down but they were not out.

So how did the NEA hold on to a majority allied group in Congress even as Democrats lost their hold of both chambers? They adapted. They found a supportive group of Republican allies. During the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, the NEA lost 76 Democrat allies but successfully replaced those with 30 Republican allies, helping them stem the tide of ally-loss. And the NEA increasingly donated money to the campaigns of these Republican allies. For example, the NEA contributed twice as much in the 2014 election (at 5,000 dollars per candidate) to Republican allies than they did in the 2010 election. In short, the NEA helped bankroll the campaigns of new Republican friends, and with great success.

With an allied majority in Congress during recent legislative sessions, the NEA has, not surprisingly, won more congressional roll call votes than they lost. In the 2015-16 legislative session, for example, 63 percent of House and Senate votes aligned with NEA stances. Not perfect, but better than nothing, and it might have been worse without the new wave of Republican NEA allies.
Teachers’ unions are often portrayed as one-trick ponies whose political fortune is tied to their support for—and as a result their influence over—Democrats. But as evidenced by recent history, like any interest group striving to survive in the face of changing political winds, they adapt to find new ways to advocate on behalf of their membership—even if means making some unlikely allies.

I don’t want to understate the difficult road ahead for teachers’ unions. A Republican congress and an unfavorable Janus ruling could certainly bring new (and largely unprecedented) challenges. But let’s also not discount teachers’ unions ability to adapt and change with the shifting political tides—this is not the first time (and likely not the last time) the political pendulum will swing away from teachers’ union interests. If history serves as a guide, they’ll figure something out.

Brad Marianno (@BradMarianno)

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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